Marilyn Hersh used to be caught up in the drama of make-believe, but now she prefers the drama of real life as a volunteer at the Venice Family Clinic.
In fact, she is more of a star now than she ever was on Broadway or in the movies. She is one of the constellation of 1,800 people who volunteer at the clinic, giving the working poor and homeless dignified health care.
At 72, Hersh is the clinic's oldest volunteer. She has donated her services to care for the sick for the last 22 years.
Ask Hersh why she spends three days a week seeing patients when she could be a leisure-time senior and she refers to her gene pool for the answer.
"My grandmother was head of housekeeping at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She was a divorced woman in the 1800s with a job. So I have always had a model for the unique, but I have no pat answer for where my feelings come from. I knew I didn't want to be a nurse, but I also knew I didn't want to be a water pourer."
Growing up an only child in a show-business family may be a dream life for some, but for Hersh it was a kind of deprivation. "My parents were on the road a lot with the theater," she said. "There was no praise or encouragement for me. It was very lonely for a child. Then I started performing as a dancer in the theater, and eventually in Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies."
Hersh continues to dance, but only at social functions. She and her husband, Bob, bought a boat after selling their family business, the Westward Ho! market chain.
"I am very grateful and blessed to have an active life and good health," she said. "Working at the clinic in an atmosphere where no one is afraid to thank a volunteer and where everyone behaves like a loving family dedicated to helping people is beyond explanation for me."
Hersh started her volunteer work at St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, where a doctor showed her how to explain the heart-lung machine to patients' families. For the last six years she has been at the Venice Family Clinic, where she sees more than 100 patients a day. She is trained to give an EKG and to test for blood sugar and anemia, among her other responsibilities. Sometimes, she said, she gets so wrapped up in her work that she forgets just what those responsibilities are.
"We were sitting in the cafeteria one morning when there was a call over the loudspeaker for medical staff," Hersh recalled. "I got up with the doctors and started to run with them down the hall to the emergency. The supervisor, running alongside me, whispered in my ear, 'You're not a doctor,' and I went back to my chair and realized my limitations."
Although Hersh is limited in not having a medical degree, she has been married for 50 years, raised two daughters and is a grandmother of six. She is also a licensed short-wave radio operator. For her, volunteering at the Venice Family Clinic not only permits her to dispense compassion, it has given her a new meaning for the word family.
The Venice Family Clinic is located at 604 Rose Ave., Venice. (310) 392-8630 .