Volunteer’s small gestures forever remembered

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On Christmas Day in 2012, Lorraine Ruffo received the worst kind of news: she had stage four brain cancer. A surgery on New Year’s Eve at Juravinski Hospital & Cancer Centre (JHCC) removed the aggressive tumour from her head, but her prognosis remained unclear.

Not knowing whether she had months or years worth of life left ahead of her, Lorraine describes the days and weeks that followed as one of the most difficult times of her life. It was during this time that she met the person she calls her “angel”.

“They told me I would lose my hair from the radiation treatment,” said Lorraine. “I had always admired the scarf headdress that Muslim women wear, and thought maybe I could find one for myself.”

Lorraine recalls sitting in her hospital bed at Juravinski Hospital wondering where she could find a head scarf to wear once she began to lose her hair. Just moments later Sabrin Abbas, a student volunteer at JHCC, walked into Lorraine’s room to deliver a cup of ice water. As a woman of Muslim faith, Sabrin was wearing a traditional head scarf. Right away, Lorraine asked Sabrin where she could find a scarf of her own.

The women chatted for some time, and their conversation evolved into what Lorraine calls a “beautiful exchange” of culture, faith and friendship. “She was a shining light,” says Lorraine. Lorraine was delighted when Sabrin returned to see her just three days later, and was touched when she realized that Sabrin had come bearing the gift of three beautiful head scarves that she had purchased especially for Lorraine. “It was extraordinary,” says Lorraine. “It was such a blessing to find that kind of caring in a young woman.”

Sabrin presented the scarves to Lorraine and showed her how to wear them. Together, the women laughed and cried and shared more about their respective religious views, about life, and about hope. Sabrin continued to visit Lorraine in the weeks that followed.

“To me, it was a simple gesture,” says Sabrin of her gift to Lorraine. “I remembered when she first told me that she was going to lose her hair, and I didn’t want her to feel insecure.”

Sabrin, 18, has volunteered with Hamilton Health Sciences since 2009, when she completed a 40-hour placement as a requirement for high school. When her placement ended, she knew she wanted to stick around. Eventually, Sabrin was volunteering at JHCC three times per week and was given the role of team captain, having the responsibility of training new student volunteers.

In her volunteer role, Sabrin greets patients and families in the emergency department, and she circulates the book cart and distributes water to patients on the rehabilitation ward. “It makes my day, putting a smile on someone’s face,” says Sabrin. “It’s more than just bringing a cup of water. Patients trust us, and it motivates me to help them as much as I can.” Liz Deluca, coordinator in the volunteer resources department at JHCC says the small actions of volunteers can have a significant impact. “Any act of kindness from a volunteer, whether it’s a smile or a friendly conversation, creates a ripple effect,” says Liz. “And it comes back to them tenfold, every time.”

In February, Lorraine was discharged from hospital. “When I returned home, my husband and I sat down with each other,” recalls Lorraine. “We remembered our 55 years together, and how we had laughed more than we cried. In a way, my cancer was a blessing in disguise. It reminded us of how blessed we were.”

Shortly after, Lorraine’s husband passed away due to illness. Although she may never recover from her cancer and the loss of her husband still weighs heavy, she finds comfort in her “wonderful family” and continually recounts her blessings, one of them being Sabrin. “I have a photo of Sabrin and I together framed in my home. I look at it often,” says Lorraine. “I’ll never forget her.”