Volunteer led program improves accessibility for patients

Every Friday morning for the past three years, 90-year-old Bill Pfaff arrived at The Scarborough Hospital (TSH) for his cancer treatments.

At 8 a.m. sharp, his cab would pull up at the hospital entrance and Bill would slowly go through his routine: check in at Patient Registration, walk to the elevator, ride to the first floor, attend his appointment, return to the ground floor, stop at Tim Hortons and stand in line for his double-double and timbits, then return to his awaiting taxi.

That was until Bill met Atta.

Atta Mohammed, TSH volunteer, is part of an innovative new program – Call Ahead for Volunteer Assistance (CAVA) – which helps patients and their loved ones navigate the hospital and generally make their visit a little easier and a lot friendlier.

CAVA, developed by the hospital’s Volunteer Services Program, is available for anyone planning to visit TSH, but specifically geared towards those living with accessibility challenges. It provides a 24-hour answering service, which patients or loved ones can call the day before their scheduled appointment to “reserve” a volunteer who will meet them at their most convenient entrance.

“The messages are checked every morning and a confirmation call is returned so patients know someone will be there for them,” explains Debbie Vandenberg, Manager, Volunteer Services. “We piloted the program throughout the summer, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s amazing what a big difference a little guidance and a smile can make.”

These days, every Friday, Atta is ready and waiting outside at five minutes to 8 a.m. – with a wheelchair – for Bill’s arrival. “He even goes out of his way to get me a good one,” says Bill. “They don’t make them any better than Atta.”

Atta wheels Bill everywhere he needs to go and often keeps him company during his chemotherapy treatments, swapping stories about Bill’s old hockey days and his time in the airforce, and Atta’s family. On the way out, Atta even stands in line to order Bill’s weekly double-double and timbits.

“The greatest thing is the appreciation from our patients,” says Atta. “The program started slow, but it’s such a nice thing and we have seen an increase in the number of users.”

Atta adds that often patients can be unsteady following certain appointments, and having someone who knows the ins and outs of the hospital, as volunteers always do, puts their mind at ease and they can focus on feeling better.

“Everyone was always very nice,” says Bill. “But the staff have their assignments, so it’s excellent to have people like Atta who can help us find our way or make it easier to get to where we need to go.”

CAVA volunteers are currently on staff Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but as the program gains popularity, Volunteer Services is hoping to extend availability into the evenings and weekends. Currently, the program offers some off-hour flexibility if patients wish to arrange a time.

“We want to start training people and help to avoid some confusion for patients and visitors,” says Atta. “The people we have helped so far have been so thankful to just have someone there. It’s amazing.”

He adds that even with the program in place, volunteers always have their eyes and ears open for people in the hospital who seem lost or confused. As they help the person find their way, they also pass along a CAVA business card to promote the program so more patients can utilize this unique service.