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The 'Gift' of Volunteering

Jan Forrester shares her experience of volunteering as a 'Pink Lady' at Gosford Private Hospital.

Outside the window of the hospital room, thin fingers of branch scratch lightly at the glass. The winter sun filters through as I slowly approach the bed. I pause for a second and look down at her. She is withered, pale, and lies stretched out on the bed. Large vases of flowers stand along the room like floral visitors. The woman's eyelids flicker open and she gently smiles at me.

'Hello, there,' I say softly. 'Hope I didn't wake you.'

'Oh, no,' she murmurs. 'I was just resting my eyes.'

'Can I interest you in something to read—a magazine, or perhaps a newspaper?'

'Well,' she says, sitting up, 'I would like a magazine but I can't see without my glasses. Perhaps you could find them for me.'

'Yes, I certainly can,' I reply. She directs me to an old battered suitcase in the wardrobe and I respectfully rummage around until I locate the tan glasses case. I pass them to her along with “Harry and Meghan,” their exhausted selves peering from the front cover of the magazine.

'God, poor things—I wish they would leave them alone,' she remarks as everyone else does, and turns to the crossword page at the back. I wish her well and continue on down the corridor.

In the next room, a bright and happy man tells me he is 'going home today.' He is dressed, case packed and ready to leave. I give him the thumbs up and continue on. A male patient lies propped on pillows, his visiting wife smiling serenely at my entry.

'Yes, please, I would love a Daily Telegraph,' his answer to my enquiry.

He stares at me keenly over his glasses. 'Hey, you look familiar—don't you swim early at the Gosford Pool?'

'Yes, I do,' I reply. I also know his face.

'I just didn't recognise you with your clothes on!'

I steal a quick look at this wife. Thankfully she gets the joke.

Further down the hallway, the very efficient and amiable nursing staff whirl their trays and trolleys with expertise, having a joke here and there and comforting patients while carrying out their duties. I have been on the receiving end, some time ago, and I can testify to how very kind and professional they are.

'Oh, hello there. You're in my old room,' I say to a pretty young girl. 'Not a bad view is it—of that blank white wall?'

Actually, since I was a patient, a large vertical garden of fresh herbs and plants has been erected on the wall outside to break the stark monotony and cheer the patients. Vibrant, living botanical greenery reminds us of tomorrows, and seasons and celebrations—all to come in our future days, if they are meant to be.

Much soul-searching can be done with infinite time to pass while lying on a hospital bed. But some of the happiest people I have seen have the least to be happy about. The capacity for humour coupled with adversity is always a marvellous thing. The smallest and simplest kindnesses are so very appreciated when one dwells in this 'other world.' It can be a smile, a word, a wave or a joke. For many patients, there is exhausting pain, forceful and immediate, individual and specific. Upon entering some rooms it is palpable. The brave smile back, but you see the vulnerability in their eyes.

Down in the maternity ward, the mums and dads are very excited. Glorious sounds of new life and the vision of tiny bodies encased in cribs, gladden the heart. Our job here is to prepare new packs for the emerging miracles and help with the collation of necessary forms. Like florist shops these rooms also spill with fresh flowers. We knock gently on their doors and apologise for any inconvenience. Sometimes, there is a chance to steal a look at the new baby and enquire as to the chosen name. Often, mum will be in the shower, while dad will be lying prone on the bed, feet crossed, chewing some chocolate or muesli bar in order to aid his recovery and ease his complete exhaustion.

Pink ladies deal weekly with dozens of floral arrangements, sorting and spraying and hopefully doing justice to the original presentation. Having a patient gaze for hours at a sad, wilted arrangement is most undesirable. Having the flowers stand happy and erect in their individual vases can almost reflect the owners’ emotional recovery. Some patients like to chat about their gardening skills, especially if the flowers on their shelf come from their own garden. I often think of my mother, a master florist—albeit untrained. She reminds me about balance, shape and height. 'Do the very best you can with what you have at hand,' she would say. Her guiding presence is subtly there in all my re-arrangements.

After a refreshing cup of tea, we march down toward the Day Surgery, a troop of pink-aproned militia on the vital mission of gown folding. This important task first involves checking that the cotton ties are attached, and secondly, that they are tied correctly in place. This is to ensure the modesty of both male and female wearers. Our attention to detail is paramount. It's a standing joke that we want a rise in pay and it is dismissed with the great mirth it deserves.

In my role as a 'pink lady,' I wasn't prepared for the interesting connection with people and their varied lives; the discovery that an individual can tell you their whole life story within an impressive three-minute timeframe. And then there are the cheeky one's who keep you on your feet and require a quick, smart response to keep their day chugging along. This also includes some members of staff who are great comics.

It is the personal interaction with people that makes this volunteering experience so rewarding and interesting. We always receive more than we give. The ability to feel empathy and sorrow for a stranger is a powerful thing. Life is a precious jewel. Let us all live it well.

Written by Jan Forrester.

Reproduced with thanks to Jan (pictured bottom right) and the Wyong Writers.