Palliative care volunteers have profound impact on patients

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Everyone remembers that one special comforting toy or blanket they had as a child.  How a hug could make almost any sadness or fear disappear.  At Southlake Regional Health Centre two very special Palliative Care Volunteers are doing just that for patients and their families – one teddy bear at a time.

Dinie Vanderwerf started volunteering at Southlake Regional Health Centre almost thirty years ago.  Back when it was known as York County Hospital.   One night Dinie’s sister called her to come to the hospital to sit with a dying friend.   They stayed with him and held his hand, as he breathed deeply, they talked softy to him and they never left the room.  That night their friend died.   “We cried with happiness to be with him.  That was my first experience with a patient here.  My sister and I hugged each other and cried.”

It was that night Dinie realized that she needed to take her compassion and kindness towards others one step further.  It was that night Dinie knew she could make a difference for patients.  “I breathe with my patients.  I go right to end with them and then I go home and scrub my kitchen floor.”

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A few years later Dinie started making stuffed teddy bears for patients.  She wanted patients to feel comforted especially when their families couldn’t be by their side.  So she started making stuffed teddy bears by hand.  It was the best way for her to reassure patients and comfort them.  There was always something for them to hug and hold onto.   A Teddy Bear Project.

Fast-forward to February 2015.  Dinie and her volunteer partner and friend Beth Greenblatt quietly walk the halls of palliative care at Southlake Regional Health Centre.   Every Thursday morning they push a tea cart full with sweets, antique cups and saucers, and a tea pot covered with a crochet tea cozy.  They say this is their way into patient’s rooms.  “People are open to you coming in if you offer them tea.  It warms them, like the china cup, it’s so nice and hot.”

But it’s not just tea that Dinie and Beth bring to patients and their families.  Over the years Dinie has hand made more than a thousand bears.  In the last two years she has found it harder and harder to keep up.   “I want to do this until my legs can’t carry me anymore,” she says.  And that’s why she’s so grateful to Beth for continuing her work making bears for palliative patients, “You have no idea how good I feel – I feel so good because I cannot do it anymore.  I was so worried.  It was a journey for me – this lady saved me.”

Beth has volunteered with palliative care at Southlake three years.    Before she met Dinie she noticed patients with Dinie’s bears.  When she realized Dinie was no longer able to make them she was inspired to find the pattern and continue the acts of kindness.  This week marks bear number 200 for Beth.   Beth says it’s easier for patients to open up to volunteers because sometimes all they need is to be able to open up to a complete stranger.  “Sometimes when I come in and give them the bear they give me a hug and they don’t let go.”

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Mary Ryan is the Manager of Community Resources at Southlake.  Over the years she has seen many amazing volunteers.  They play a major part in helping staff provide excellent experiences, “It is the little things that make a difference and our volunteers have such a positive impact on the patient experience.  Dinie and Beth have gone above and beyond with their Teddy Bear project.  Their warmth, kindness and passion for helping people means the world to our patients and their families.  Our staff and physicians also highly value their support.”

Beth says volunteers work extra hard to wend their way into their hearts of patients and their families.   “Walking in with a teddy bear has been an amazing way to get them to open up and let us help.   We’re just there to be there.  So many times I come in with a teddy and someone will cry.  One thing we tell the families is that now that they have a bear they are not alone.  So when you go home and leave your loved one here they are in good hands.”

When Dinie and Beth talk about the joy they feel from helping patients and their families their eyes light up, their smiles are from ear to ear.  Beth says that even though there is sadness she’s never felt happier, “I cannot top this.  When I come in the nurses are say “yay you’re here. “  It’s a nice feeling .  This is where I’m supposed to be. “

Dinie agrees, she looks at the bears on shelves around their office and says, “So beautiful, so wonderful these bears, I come in in the morning and there’s nothing more wonderful.”   The two of them talk about how much energy it takes to carry on the Teddy Bear Project but neither one complains.  Beth laughs and takes Dinie’s hand, “She’s got a key on the back of her and we wind it up – you’re amazing Dinie!”

Both Dinie and Beth are inspired by the kindness and strength of the staff, the patients and their families.  At the end of the day, “we’re all here to do good things.  It’s easier to do good than it is to do otherwise,” says Beth.

Dinie, who is now in her eighties, is grateful that her Teddy Bear Project will carry on through Beth, “I’ve been a busy lady – If my end was coming I would say thank you for my wonderful life.”

So at the end of the day on Thursdays they each go home to rest fulfilled by having treated people well, “we both know this is where we were meant to be…. we are put on the earth for a very short time and we’re here to do good and this is our good. “