Gayle Hayes, R.N., a surgical interview nurse at Gwinnett Medical Center in Georgia, has seen plenty of veterans straggling in alone, sometimes homeless and traveling hours on buses because the overcrowded VA hospital couldn't take them. Some deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. For others, years of isolation and rejection have taken a toll. In many ways, they remind her of her own uncles and cousins who served in Korea and Vietnam.

Eight years ago, she wanted the veterans to know they were appreciated, so she started making certificates thanking them for their service. It was a small gesture, and she was surprised when a few of the men became teary at the piece of paper. "They said they had never gotten a 'thank-you' before," Hayes recalls. "That was unbelievable to me."

Hayes did other things, too, like putting together goody bags with snacks and puzzle books to keep the veterans occupied on the ride home. If they hadn't had lunch, she brought them untouched lunch trays from patients who had been discharged that morning.

"Gayle really taught me to respect our veterans," says Michelle Stanford, R.N., Hayes' colleague in the surgical interview department. Other nurses followed Hayes' lead, and "the practice of being verbal and thanking our veterans," became part of hospital protocol.

Last December, the Georgia Hospital Association recognized Hayes with a Hospital Heroes Award "for her tireless work in helping veterans as well as her daily dedication to supporting her colleagues." In a video honoring her, Phil Wolfe, Gwinnett's president and CEO, talked about the importance of younger nurses having a mentor like Hayes to show them that nursing is "not filling out forms and meeting timelines. It's really about caring for a patient."

Last year, after the husband of a co-worker with small children was diagnosed with mouth cancer, Hayes started a fundraiser to send the family to Walt Disney World before his surgery. "It seemed like such a hard thing for them to face, and I was hoping that they would have some happy time before they had to go into something that was so scary," Hayes recalls.

She had nine days to raise the money. When the collection came up short, Hayes contacted Disney to see if they could make the trip more affordable. They did.

"I have been known to come up with things from time to time," acknowledges Hayes, in what others might describe as an understatement. "I guess I'm an idea person."

Stanford puts it another way: "Gayle is very, very humble, and when something's done, she never attaches her name to it." For the Disney fundraiser, "she put the bug in certain people's ears who had the ability to pull strings and get things done. She went to our charge nurses and created the idea so that it almost seemed like it was their idea. And people got on board.

"She initiated something, and then stood back and let everyone else take the ball and run with it."

Hayes is not beyond wearing a cow costume or a silly hat to bring some levity to the floor. Some years ago, she decided she needed a break from nursing and took a year off to work as a singing telegram performer. When she returned to Gwinnett, she didn't come empty-handed: she had a closet full of festive and goofy costumes — a nun, a bunny, Mr. Spock — she'd hand-sewn for her job. She doesn't need much prompting to put one on to cheer up a patient.

"She really has no fear," Stanford says.

Hayes' people skills come in handy when she's teaching CPR classes to co-workers or people in the community. "I want them to be relaxed when they're learning," she says.

That way, if a situation comes up in which they actually need to do CPR, they won't freeze up. She uses music to lighten the mood — including "Stayin' Alive," approved by the American Heart Association because "the beat of that song is the proper cadence for CPR" — and shares funny medical-themed cartoons that she clips from the newspaper.

"She uses her wit to disarm patients and make them feel more at home," Stanford says. "Even if they've got the worst prognosis, she makes them feel good and have hope."