St Vincent's Volunteers giving back to hospitals and their community
St Vincent's Private Hospital Northside & St Vincent's Private Hospital Brisbane
December 5 is International Volunteers Day - a day that recognises the efforts of volunteers in transforming their societies and supporting their local communities. St Vincent’s has a selfless and tireless team of volunteers. This story pays tribute to them.
Recent research in the United States found that people over 50 years of age who volunteer for at least two hours weekly, live longer and, are generally, more healthy than those who don’t volunteer.
And at the age of 92, St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane volunteer Colin Apelt is living and thriving testament to that!
Colin has volunteered for St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane for over 20 years as a bereavement support worker and more recently as the drinks trolley volunteer, spreading good cheer and engaging chat around the palliative care ward at St Vincent’s Brisbane (Kangaroo Point) hospital.
Following the death of his beloved wife Margaret in 1999, retired engineering Professor Colin Apelt worked closely with the Sisters of Mercy on governance issues with the Mater Hospital board, before stepping back from the role in 2001.
Colin has always held the motto “In service of the community“ close to his heart, so after a short break, he was drawn into frontline volunteer service at St Vincent’s Private Hospital, Brisbane, two years later.
“When I started in the bereavement support role, especially when I was undergoing training and induction, it just clicked for me because it hadn’t been that long ago that I had been on my own grief journey and in a sense, I still was, “reflects Colin.
“I had that lived experience where you knew how tough it was and how long it could take to move into a different phase because you’re in a dark space for quite a while after the loss of a lifelong partner.
“So, I knew the importance of little gestures, like making those follow up calls to the close family member of the recently departed palliative care patient, to check in with them as well as sending condolence cards. I was a good listener and empathetic and I think that was valued and helped many people.”
These days, Colin can be seen one or two afternoons a week around 4pm ‘Happy Hour’ pushing the drinks trolley around the wards, pouring a refreshing beverage and breaking the ice (literally and figuratively!) and breaking up the daily medical routine for patients with a ‘normal everyday chat’.
“If you’ve been in the hospital for a while and most of your day is consumed by ‘medical stuff’, it can be very precious for a patient just to feel normal for a little while, enjoying a drink and a chat with someone who cares,” said Colin.
For 77-year old Christine Robertson, her volunteer work is all about giving back to the hospital which cared for two family members while they underwent cancer treatment – her husband Neil and her brother, Philip Archer.
Neil had been a fit and healthy 64 year old who went from complaining about indigestion to being diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer, all in the space of a few days in 2010.
“Neil’s journey through cancer care and palliative care was cruel and at times brutal but everyone at St Vincent’s who looked after him was truly fabulous – they made it as bearable as it possibly could be and we could not have thanked them enough,” said Christine.
“He was at the hospital day-in, day-out; night-in, night-out with treatment, transfusions and everything else. Everyone was very caring – if I was especially upset, they would provide me with pastoral care which really helped.
“Sadly, Neil died in July 2011 but I felt this great urge to give back and just to try and get on with my life. I’m not the type of person who sits around. I’ve worked all my life and I know I need a purpose to every day. So, by October of that year – three months later – I was ready to step up and step back into the hospital in a volunteer role.”
Christine has been volunteering for St Vincent’s Northside for 12 years - initially working in the post-operative oncology ward in an administrative role, but more recently as a team leader and now as a concierge at the main entrance.
“It’s good knowing that I can be of some comfort to people when they arrive and if they don’t know where they’re going for an appointment and they’re stressed and confused,” said Christine.
“I’m a people person – I love people and I love life. People whom I help at the hospital sometimes ask me why I’m a volunteer and I’m happy to share a little bit of my story as to how I came to be working with the volunteer team. When I talk about what happened to my family, I think people see it as authentic and that I’m speaking from personal experience.
“Sometimes they ask if they can give me a hug – I guess because there’s some empathy or shared experience between us.”
In more recent years, Christine and her family again found themselves on the receiving end of expert care at St Vincent’s Northside, when her brother, Philip was diagnosed with cancer. He had his bladder and bowel removed but thankfully has been in remission for three years.
Again, Christine said, the family couldn’t have asked for any better care – and the more recent experience with her brother has given her a new reason to keep arriving for her volunteer shift with a smile on her face. She’s grateful for every new day and every thankful smile and touch from her interactions with patients at St Vincent’s Hospital.
St Vincent’s Private Hospital Volunteer Coordinators Sharyn Smith (Northside Hospital) and Maureen Hansen (Brisbane Hospital) oversee the team of 110 volunteers. Ms Smith says most volunteers are driven by the motivation and desire to give back to their community.
Collectively the St Vincent’s volunteers have contributed over 15,000 hours in the past year to supporting St Vincent’s patients and their families on a daily basis.
“Our volunteers come from a range of backgrounds - some have recently retired and are looking for something meaningful, others want to give back to their community while some are here because they’re students who are gaining valuable experience in a hospital environment,” said Ms Smith.
“Most of our volunteers want to make a difference and recognise they can make a difference. They know that when people come to hospital, they often feel quite vulnerable and volunteers can add additional care and comfort to a patient’s arrival and their stay.
“We have volunteers in most of the departments throughout both St Vincent’s Private Hospital Northside and St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane – doing everything from providing directions when people first arrive, offering a cup of tea or sandwich, to providing a warm blanket or even just having a chat.
“From our St Vincent’s perspective, our volunteers mean a great deal to us. They are experts in looking for the little moments that really make a difference to someone’s care. The impact of our volunteer services is significant on our patient experience.
“Our volunteers make lasting connections with patients and their families, with many patients reporting what a great comfort it is to be welcomed by the same volunteer 12 months later when they return to the hospital.”
Ms Smith said while Colin Apelt was the oldest volunteer, he “had the biggest spring in his step,” possessed lots of wisdom, a calm and attentive nature and a fantastic sense of humour.
“He’s very popular with the team with some volunteers actively seeking out time with him and asking advice about a range of different things, life experiences and not just volunteering,” she said.
“Christine is continually looking for ways to support patients and visitors to our hospital and provides a warm and welcome greeting to everyone coming to our hospital and is especially of assistance escorting patients to day surgery.”
St Vincent’s showed its thanks and appreciation for its volunteers with its annual Christmas lunches for volunteers at Northside and Brisbane hospitals this week.