SD ag icon Jim Woster becomes vaccine ambassador for Avera
He’s the kind of man who has spent the last 30 years paying for your parking tickets at Avera Health, just so you’d have one less worry during your hospital stay.
He’s the kind of who would spend hours just stopping in to patient rooms to offer a cheery hello during hospital visiting hours.
But Jim Woster, who has been a goodwill ambassador for patients at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center for years, is not the kind of person to be persuaded to get the COVID-19 vaccine before his fellow man.
For some, Woster is known as the father of the Sioux Falls Stockyards. For others, the 80-year-old is known as the speaker at 4-H banquets and corn council meetings. As of this week, however, the South Dakota Hall of Famer is taking on a new role: Avera’s ambassador for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Other than just a mild soreness for about a half a day, I didn’t even know that I had it,” Woster said. “I’ve had flu shots, and I didn’t react badly to it, but you know, for a little bit you feel a little junky, but for mine, I was very fortunate.”
He’s aware of the public
Woster received his first does of the Pfizer vaccine late last week, just a couple days before the state started offering vaccines to those considered most at-risk, including people age 80 and older and people receiving care for cancer, transplant and dialysis.
When Avera officials approached him with the idea of becoming an ambassador for the effort, he told them he wouldn’t get it until his age group was eligible. He didn’t want to risk cheating anyone out of an opportunity, he said.
But Woster has worked long enough with the hospital as someone contracted to help with media and public relations efforts that he could have been eligible to receive it sooner. Still, he said he wanted to hold off as long as possible, Avera officials said.
“He is very selfless and very aware of what the public is going through,” said Lindsey Meyers, vice president of public relations and communications for Avera Health. “I think many people, including those in health care, don’t ever want to feel like they’re taking a shot away from somebody who needs [it] more. That definitely speaks to who Jim is as a person. He’s very selfless, and he always thinks of others.”
Meyers is the one who reached out to Woster about the idea.
When Woster used to work at the stockyards, he would attend mass at the hospital early in the day because that’s when it fit his schedule best, Meyers said. His time visiting Avera patients didn’t start until Sister Mary Colman Coakley, the former Avera McKennan Board of Trustees chair and former health care coordinator and director of pastoral care, pulled him aside and asked him to check in on someone, Meyers said.
From there, Woster was absorbed into the fabric of the healthcare system, visiting patients on the regular, playing guitar for children and even becoming a radio spokesperson to help Avera reach its more rural footprint as someone who continues to regularly visit with the agriculture community.
He knew being an ambassador for the vaccine was just another way to serve.
“I got calls from really smart people who were concerned about maybe not even getting it,” Woster said. “They were worried about, ‘Well, what if it’s not tested? Or what if this goes wrong?’ Maybe just because Jim, No. 1 is real old, and No. 2, a lot of people know him. Maybe he can be helpful by showing he got the shot, and he’s doing good.”
Jim Woster doesn’t act as
though he’s 80
As much as becoming an Avera vaccine ambassador was about more than showing residents who are unsure that it’s OK to get the treatment, it was also Woster’s chance to get back to a sense of normalcy. It’s a chance to step back into one of the places he loves most and connect with others.
Woster hasn’t seen his family for about the last 10 months. Holidays were often spent through Zoom, and he hasn’t stepped foot back into patient rooms for goodwill visits since mid-March, he said.
And most of his interactions with Meyers for the last year were by phone, Meyers said.
“His first concern was, ‘Don’t move me up the line. I want to get it when I would get it. And of course, I’ll help out otherwise,’” his brother Kevin Woster said. “That’s when one of them said, ‘We want to remind you that you don’t live like an 80-year-old, you don’t act like an 80-year-old but you are an 80-year-old.’”
Jim’s saving grace may have been his ability to step back. Jim hasn’t had the virus yet, but family canceled a summer reunion and other gatherings out of an overall precaution for all involved, Kevin said.
“As an 80-year-old, a very active 80-year-old, he’s a great guy to play that role,” Kevin said. “And you know, he’s always willing to do that. And honestly, he doesn’t look for it, but people suggest things to him and he almost always says yes.”
‘People need to share their stories’
Jim’s story will be mostly shared through his own word of mouth, Meyers said. Of course, he may make the occasional Facebook Live appearance and speak about the experience on the radio, but much of what Jim will do will be more organic, more people-focused, Meyers said.
“People need to share their stories, because storytelling is such an important way to share information,” Meyers said.
Jim won’t get the second part of the vaccine for at least another two weeks, said Cale Feller, Avera’s media relations director. Then Jim will still have to get the OK from Avera officials to be allowed back into the building for patient visitations, he said.
Until then, he’s biding his time and trying to make the most of what help he can offer while watching his P’s and Q’s, masking up and keeping his distance.
“Obviously, I hope I can start swinging back by Avera McKennan,” Jim said. “And believe it or not, like at Avera Behavioral Health, I will go out on occasion with 10 or 12 kids and take my guitar and sing, ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ and they sing along until they get tired of me, which happens rapidly. Those kinds of things are just fun.”