BACKGROUND: This piece was written in April 2019. I stopped volunteering in the Emergency Department when COVID-19 struck.
The patient lying in bed is alone in the room and may be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or practice another religion. “Having you talk to me like this makes me feel so much better,” they say. “You’re doing God’s work.”
Every once in a while, a patient in the Emergency Department at Sunnybrook Hospital will say something like this to me after we’ve spent time chatting. I feel an immediate connection to the person, and the presence of God in the form of goosebumps. Holding back tears, I smile and walk away.
In my role as a volunteer, I do things nurses don’t have time to do: deliver juice, tea, ice chips; escort family members to the bedside; distribute paperwork to other zones; have quiet conversations to help patients pass the time.
When first approaching a patient, I often start with, “How’s your day going so far?” They will smile or laugh and always reply with a positive “I’m being well cared for” comment. No one ever complains about the slow pace of anything. Even someone on a gurney in the hallway (an ever-increasing situation, sadly) doesn't complain, being aware they are in one of Canada’s best hospitals.
I go on to explain that my job is to distract them from the reason they are here. I quip, “I’m not medically trained, so I know nothing!”
Following cues like speech patterns or physical appearance I search for a topic they might want to talk about. Sometimes I ask what kind of work they do or did, if they might be retired. Which is how I connect with a 70 year-old patient during a recent shift.
This gentleman has black hair and mustache, brown skin, straight white teeth, and a bloody place on his arm near an IV. He is well-spoken and makes steady eye contact. (Some patients are groggy.) His voice is soft and warm, and we chat about a wide range of topics.
He describes himself as an African-American who moved to Canada many years ago. He is proud of his former career as a detective with the Toronto Police. He started his career “on the beat” but then became involved in intelligence and was part of a team that collaborated with intelligence in the US and other countries. He is clearly very smart and loves figuring out complex issues.
As I prepare to move on to another patient, he says, “Thank you for talking with me. It’s obvious that you enjoy doing God’s work.”
“Why thanks, that’s a nice thing for you to say.” The usual goosebumps flood both arms.
He continues, “I can tell that you have spent your whole life being kind to others. Your kind nature shines through.”
Tears spring up as I smile and move on, suppressing my natural inclination to protest and list situations when I’ve been grumpy and self-centred. God only knows.
My friends who volunteer in similar settings recognize the privilege of such heartfelt, intimate moments. “Patients do ME a favour by sharing their private feelings,” one says. I agree.