When I was growing up back in Montreal I remember that my mother was a volunteer at a hospital. She did it for years and years and years, and she really enjoyed it. She’d come home and always share her day with me and my dad. She’d talk about what she’d done, who she’d helped. Some days were funny, some were sad, all were interesting and rewarding.
With her as an example, I guess it’s no surprise that when I was in high school I volunteered at that same hospital, during one of my summer breaks. They had a program for teenagers (16 years old and up — I was 16) — we were called candy stripers. Our uniforms, baby blue and white striped pinafores that we wore over our own white blouses, should give you a clue as to what inspired the name of the program. Student nurses wore the same thing, only their stripes were pink and white.
Like my mother, I also loved it. We didn’t have one, specific post. We floated wherever we were needed: Taking patients for X-rays or physiotherapy. Delivering flowers to patients. Filing. Taking the mobile library from floor to floor, and from room to room. Stacking towels, sheets and blankets. Feeding patients who couldn’t feed themselves. Filling in for doctors’ receptionists when they were off. Playing or reading to the kids on the paediatric floor (this I remember being very sad. There were some very, very sick kids there). But of all the ‘jobs’ I had, there are two that I remember vividly, even all these years later:
Once, I was asked to deliver the lunch trays. I first had to go to the kitchen to pick up the huge tray carrier and then I was off to the maternity floor. While I don’t remember what floor it was on, or even where the nursery was located, I do remember the nurses’ station was right opposite the bank of elevators. For good reason, as you’ll soon find out:
The elevator doors opened. I started to push the huge stainless steel trolley out, into the hallway. And, when I’d made it half way I heard a blood curdling scream. I mean blood curdling. Which was followed by several more.
It stopped me dead in my tracks. I was literally rooted to the spot. I don’t think I could have moved if I’d wanted to. It felt like my hair was standing on end. And I know the blood must have drained from my face because in a nano second one of the nurses sitting in the station leapt to her feet and came running over to me. “Are you okay?” she asked me, several times. I am sure she thought I was going to pass out.
Finally, I nodded that I was. She helped me get the cart over to the station, where she insisted I sit down for a minute. After getting me a glass of water, she gently explained to me that what I’d heard were the screams of a woman who was in labour — but she was very quick to reassure me that the woman wasn’t really in pain — that it was just a cultural thing — where she was from, screaming was part of the birthing process. She was probably afraid I’d be traumatized for life. Maybe I was; and on some subconscious level it’s at least one of the reasons I never chose to have children.
My other memory goes back to the day I was told to go help out in the snack bar. They were down a ‘cook’ and needed me to take orders and make sandwiches. Me! All thumbs in my mother’s kitchen. Couldn’t even boil water. But somehow, I managed; and even enjoyed myself. I remember that when I came home and told my parents what I’d done that day they both cracked up. And from then on, my household chores included kitchen duty.
Those days are far, far behind me. I don’t even live in Montreal any more. I’ve been in Toronto since 1985. But I still volunteer. At Mt. Sinai Hospital. I go once a week and work primarily in an out patient surgical recovery room, although from time to time I help out in one of the surgical waiting rooms and deliver comfort trays to the families of palliative patients who have only hours or days to live. I’ve been volunteering at Mt. Sinai for a little over 3 years now — once I gave up working full time for the life of a freelancer. Now my time is much more my own and it’s easy to set aside a day to do something good for my community.
Just like my late mother did when she moved to Toronto. I keep following in her footsteps, even now that she’s gone. And I’m very happy to do it.