St Vincent's Volunteers giving back to hospitals and their community

St Vincent's Private Hospital Northside & St Vincent's Private Hospital Brisbane

UPDATE AS OF 04/04/2024 

Colin Apelt Volunteer, Inspirational Media Star

The heartwarming and inspirational story of St Vincent’s Private Hospital volunteer, 92-year-old Colin Apelt, has resonated and brought acclaim from around Australia and overseas, following the airing of a video news story on Colin on ABC TV News Australia and its social media channels over Easter.


St Vincent’s first told the story of Colin, Christine Robertson and our amazing and generous St Vincent’s ‘volunteer army’ last December to mark International Volunteers Day (see below for the original story).


The story of Colin, one of six volunteer Happy Hour Companions who provide a chat and a nightly tipple at the palliative care ward of St Vincent’s Private Hospital Brisbane (Kangaroo Point) was brought to the attention of ABC-TV News Brisbane earlier this year. They sent a crew and reporter in mid-March to spend a shift following Colin around as he served and chatted with patients on his weekly round as ‘Happy Hour Companion.’


The story aired on ABC TV News Bulletins in Queensland, nationally and internationally on the ABC-TV 24 news service on Easter Sunday – then went viral across ABC Brisbane and ABC Australia’s Instagram and Facebook pages, attracting, firstly several hundred thousands of views and hundreds of comments.


But by Thursday morning, the ABC Instagram reel had incredibly over 1.7 million views while there were over 1 million views on Facebook and the ABC TV News digital page hosting the story had attracted over 42,000 views.


It was seen and received a massive national and international audience and resonated with comments and responses from around the globe including New Zealand, Hong Kong, the United States, UK and France.


Among the admirers were Federal Minister for Aged Care, Anika Wells, who shared the story to her @anikawellsmp page, commenting “Good on you, Colin.”


The tributes to Colin, St Vincent’s Private Hospital and for its volunteers flooded social media accounts with people effusive in their praise. Many called him an “inspiration”, “a gem”, “an angel”, “an absolute legend”, “a beautiful soul”, “a true star”, “the face of human kindness and thoughtfulness”, “my vote for Australian of the Year”.

Here’s a sample of the comments, some of which came from former students of the University of Queensland Engineering Professor and from families of former palliative care patients:


“My Dad was in palliative care here and for him, this service made a huge difference to his last days. It was something he looked forward to. Thank you.” MichelleUptonTheAuthor


“Colin came into my life as we said goodbye to my Dad at St Vincent’s. It was such a lovely gift he gave us. Thank you Colin xx.” Kittkatt_McDee


“I had the privilege of meeting Colin while my sister was in palliative care in January. One of many beautifully compassionate people at St Vincent’s.” Marie-Claire Grady, Brisbane


“Great story St Vincent’s - I watched it on ABC over here… inspirational.” Brett Free (Hong Kong)


“Just when I thought I couldn’t love St Vincent’s more.” MelanielhBarbier


“Lovely Colin also gave my Mum a tipple or two of Bailey’s when she was there. She really enjoyed them.” Louise Vasta


“He has grasped the meaning of life. Go Colin.”  Schnitz04


“Some people have an overflow of compassion, they are our real heroes.” Adrian Ashenden


St Vincent’s Private Hospital Volunteers Coordinator (Northside Hospital) Sharyn Smith said it was truly heartwarming to see the outpouring of affection, admiration and recognition for Colin and the St Vincent’s volunteers.


“Colin’s one of six volunteers who provides the palliative care service and they all do an amazing job providing companionship and a little daily treat to our patients who are at a vulnerable and isolating time in their lives, although we have over 100 volunteers in total,” said Sharyn.


“On their rounds, it’s a ‘visit with a purpose’ and it can help to get patients talking sometimes when you come to their room for a reason other than to see if they feel like company or like talking. We find the drinks trolley is often a good conversation starter, whether they just want a fruit juice or something like a Baileys and ice.


“Our volunteers have good people skills and they’re genuinely interested in connecting to the patients and hearing their stories, if they wish to share it. Our volunteers get inspired by them so it’s a positive outcome for everyone.”


To find out more about how to become a St Vincent’s Private Hospital volunteer, visit here.

Colin Apelt

Story from December 2023

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 Robertson

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.”

Volunteer Lunch

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. 

Better and fairer care. Always.

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