Volunteer provides unique service for grieving patients

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By Holly Tran

Volunteers are an important part of our organization and hospital; they contribute greatly impacting our patients’ experiences. One of our volunteers, Noel Macdonald, has volunteered at BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre for nearly a decade and provides quite a unique service for our patients and their families.

Noel was a full time volunteer outreach worker in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for almost a decade before he started volunteering at BC Women’s, and his involvement in the community also included portrait photography. On one occasion, one of the families Noel was working with at the shelter asked if he would take baby photos for them at BC Women’s Fir Square Complex Care unit, where the family was having their baby. “I immediately fell in love with the moms and the Fir Square team,” says Noel. “That was eight years and 500 babies ago.”

Noel shoots maternity portraits throughout the course of a mom’s pregnancy, and he would also follow up with portraits of the mom, baby and extended families. Occasionally, he would follow Fir families into the community to do more portraits as the family grows. Three years ago, a social worker at BC Women’s asked Noel if he would take photos for a family that was experiencing a loss. This began his volunteer work as a demise photographer. The photos that Noel takes hold significance to our patients and their families. For the moms on Fir whom are struggling with substance and/or alcohol use, the photos bring them pride and joy of becoming a new mother giving them validation. “They deserve to be acknowledged and respected for the incredibly difficult task of facing their disease and getting treated at Fir,” says Noel. “The women also need to be recognized as moms and their love for their baby needs to be seen.” With demise photography, families come to cherish the final moments that are captured of their loss and the space these photos provide gives an outlet for families to focus their grief as part of their healing.

Artwork and the patient experience

The intimate nature of these photo shoots develops a unique connection between Noel and the families. “I find myself drawn to working in the rewarding, challenging and vital space of supporting families that find themselves in an unbelievable situation,” says Noel. “I have somehow been able to work around death and dying in a compassionate, caring and productive way. Part of what keeps me working is the amazing relationship I have developed with the nurses, doctors, social workers, respiratory therapists and chaplains supporting families (and each other) in this important work.”

The motivation that keeps Noel volunteering besides the relationships he’s developed is that the saying is true: doing good work makes you feel good.

Holly Tran is a Communications Officer at BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre.