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Do You Have The Time?

January 4, 2009

I spent a lot of time in the hospital as a kid. It was mid to late 70’s, Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. I would be there for months at a time, awaiting or recovering from surgery on my spine. Other times I would be awaiting test results, or for a new brace or wheelchair to be built by the orthotics team. Toronto is about four hours away, so rather than have my parents shuttle me back and fourth, the doctors would just admit me into the hospital and have me stay there until they were done whatever needed doing.

I became well known to the nursing staff. 6B and 5G were the wards I occupied most often, and because it was better staffed, 5G quickly became my favourite.  Through tears, every time I was admitted, I would plead with my doctor to be put on 5G, and he never let me down.

Being four hours away from home for 4 or 5 weeks at a time, sometimes more, was not easy for an 8 year old. My parents both worked, and with the distance, visiting was limited to every other weekend. On those mornings, if I could, I would sit by the elevator doors. They were due around 10 am, having left at 6, and I would be by the elevator watching the numbers climb to the 5th floor, hoping it would stop and they would be inside. I remember my dad looking exhausted upon arrival, and knowing he had to drive 4 hours to get back worried me. Yet they would often stay until I was settled with my dinner before leaving. I don’t think they ever saw me wheel my chair to the door of my room and peek out, watching them wait for elevator, then after the doors had closed, wheeling up and watching the numbers slowly descend to G, and pause there. I knew then they were headed to the car. That’s often when the tears would flow.

And that’s usually when a nurse, one of the dozens and dozens that cared for me over the years, would come and provide a well needed hug and spend some time with me, usually just talking, until the hurt went away.

That’s how it was for me at Sick Kids Hospital; I was part of the family. I remember as I got older, maybe 12 or 13, the nurses would let me stay up late and sit at the nurses’ station with them. We would order pizza at 10pm and talk and laugh, tell stories, and just pass the time.

When I was younger, it was the volunteers that made such a difference. Sick Kids hospital had many activities for the kids, but all of it was operated by volunteers. No volunteers, no activities. Each ward had a well stocked playroom, but the room remained locked if there was nobody to staff it.

I remember on 5G, on Tuesday nights, at 6pm, the playroom would open. I would often be there by 5:45, waiting. They could be counted on to be there. Two lovely women, both professionals, in their early thirties, friends and wonderful volunteers. Unlike many of the others, they didn’t just unlock the doors and read a book while the kids messed with the toys, they had activities planned. They would lay out the finger paints, have us make Popsicle stick baskets, or cut out snowflakes. They would play records too. I still remember some of the silly songs, something about meatballs and old Smokey. And they were attractive too. Yes, ok I was 9, but I remember thinking they were pretty, and I don’t know now if that was physical beauty, or just the kindness and sincerity in their smiles. For whatever reason, they took a liking to me. They obtained special permission from my parents when I was feeling well enough, and they took me out of the hospital. They got an extended lunch from work, and while one of them wheeled me to a nearby park, the other had gone to fetch MacDonald’s for all of us to eat. I still remember the day clearly. The way the cool spring air smelled, the way the warm sun felt on my skin, the nearby traffic noises. All of it so rich to me, when all I had known for weeks was my hospital ward. I was disappointed to find out on one of my future hospital stays that they had given up their Tuesday night visits. But I am grateful to this day for their kindness.

On a few occasions when I was admitted to the hospital for major back surgery, I was put in traction, on what was called a striker bed.  Steel pins were put thru both knees and metal screws tightened into the sides of my head. To these, weights would be attached to ropes directed thru pulleys, stretching my spine for about a month before surgery. And there I would lie, only able to stare at the ceiling, or if they flipped me, the floor, for a month. Here again, volunteers made life not only bearable, but even fun. There were these crazy guys that ran the weekly Cub Scout meetings in the hospital. They would come on Wednesdays and sweep the hospital wards for any kid mobile enough to come down to the basement, scoop them up and haul them down for the meetings. Two of those guys were nuts. Just fun goofy guys, acting like two of the three stooges, and making all of us laugh and never taking “no” for an answer. I remember when they found that I was in traction, they asked the nurse if they could take me anyway. “Well, no” she said, “he’s in traction.”  “So? The bed has wheels, we can take him. We’ll be careful we promise.” And so she agreed. Not ten feet from my room, one of them peered down at me and said, “Alright, lets see how fast this bed can GO!!”  while making running sounds with his feet. He was kidding of course, but it made me laugh, and forget, if only for a moment, that I was a few weeks from an 8 hour surgery.

Another great volunteer used to just pop in and visit with me. Sometimes reading, sometimes just talking. He was a great guy and we always had such interesting conversation about anything and everything. I remember once he got in trouble, as one of the kids had asked him about his beliefs. I forget what it was, but it was not “mainstream”  The kid asked him about it and he explained, because that’s how he was, he never shied away from questions. The kid was fascinated and told his parents about it. They were devout Catholics and were furious. Luckily, he was only reprimanded and was made to tell all the kids, including me, that his beliefs were his and his only, and that he could not talk about it any more. All that aside, he continued to visit me, and discovered that I wanted to be an architect when I grew up. He never forgot that fact. On a future hospital stay, perhaps the following year, he set up a surprise excursion for me. He took me to visit an architectural firm in downtown Toronto where a friend of his worked. They had a slide show prepared of some the commercial buildings they had designed, showed me blueprints and sketches and scale models, and answered any questions I had. He then took me to lunch at a downtown hotel, the Westin I think, where I ordered a burger and fries, of course.

The point to my story, and I should get to it before you fall asleep, is that a time in my life that could have been horrible and lonely, is instead remembered with fondness. And it’s dedicated people that made it so. Nurses, like crazy Mary who painted my toenails when I was in traction, and those on 5G that gave me the hugs I needed or let me stay up late and order pizza with them. Volunteers, endless volunteers who gave of their time and took an interest in that lonely kid from out of town, the one who was there, yet again. I was a shy kid. It took a lot to get me to open up. I can imagine that at first, talking to me was pretty thankless. But they didn’t give up, they stuck with me and came back, time after time, even on those days where I closed my eyes and rolled over.  They patted me on the head, told me to rest and said they would come back later, did I need anything?

What makes someone give so much of themselves? Are they a special breed? Or are they just normal people that know how to commit to something and simply follow through. Because beyond the time that they spent, that’s what meant the most to me. The predictability and stability. Every Tuesday evening, the playroom was hopping. Every Wednesday, Scouts with the Stooges. I could count on that, I could count on them.

And so I’d like you to think about what you can do. What difference can you make? Because you see, it’s not that difficult. You just need to commit some time. These people didn’t cure a disease, they didn’t spend wads of money, and they didn’t get overly personally involved. They simply spent a few hours a week with some sick kids. And I’ll never ever forget them.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Carm permalink
    January 5, 2009 10:40 am

    Very powerful post Syl..
    It is always at the most difficult, trying times in our lives that “angels” seem to appear and guide or help us through..
    How fortunate are we, as adults, to have this awareness and perhaps the ability or chance to “pay it forward” in some way, as a thank you to the Universe.

    Sometimes.. if we are lucky enough.. we still have the chance to thank these people in person. On that note… I THANK you.

  2. January 5, 2009 11:53 am

    I did some volunteering here with my therapy dog at a long-term care hospital, and some patients reiterate what you said about the stability, the pattern. It’s something to look forward to, to plan for, and when you’re stuck in the hospital, you NEED that. It’s essential, and more so for people who don’t have friends or family close.

    (I, too, was in sick kids for a short stay in the mid-70’s. Sadly, I don’t have many fond memories. I was in isolation, don’t ever remember seeing a volunteer, and had one of the meanest nurses in the hospital tend to me (or so it seemed back then). My mom was the only person who could visit (Dad was away travelling), and I couldn’t leave my room, so I was bored and agitated. But, I LOVE that hospital for how much they helped me. My situation was an odd one, and I know many other people, including close family, that have spent lots of time there in multiple visits and have nothing but good things to say about their treatment. )

  3. January 5, 2009 3:24 pm

    Jenn, that was YOU in there??? Kidding
    I think I might know the nurse you mean, lol.
    I too had some very unpleasant experiences, no doubt. Perhaps that’s another blog post to come.

  4. January 5, 2009 7:34 pm

    sylvain, I am completely touched by this story.

    it affirms for me that just being there-just talking or being present or listening-can make all the difference to someone…that an action does not have to be grandiose to make an impact.

    thank you for sharing this story-you truly made my day and I look at my volunteer work a little differently now.

  5. January 6, 2009 12:46 am

    Well you sure know how to bring tears to this ole gals eyes…
    I think you wrote about your early hospital experiences early on in your blog but this is a differenet slant I think.
    I havent’ done any volunteer work…but I’ve gotten pleasure from giving to my counseling clients over the years…and I used to see a lot of little kids. It felt good to have a hand in helping in some pretty sad situations at times.
    And the best pat on the back I was given recently when my daughter relayed to me that my 4 yr old grand daughter told her that she “liked when Grandma Lynnie came over because she always brought us projects to do.” I can’t think of a better way to be remembered.

  6. January 8, 2009 8:01 am

    Syl–you have done a wonderful job describing your own childhood hospital stays and calling all of us, those who read your blog, to action.

    Just as is the case with everyone who experiences great challenges and comes through them as you have, you had the choice to be embittered by your circumstances or to find the wonder, joy, and love in them. For, as you well know, there is love in everything we live if only we are willing to see it.

    Bless you, my friend, for the choice you have made!

  7. February 12, 2009 12:43 am

    volunteering reminds me that a small act can make a huge difference in the lives of the ones helped

    thank you for sharing this story

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