Volunteers offer comfort and compassion

By Emily Dawson

It’s not yet 10 a.m. and a man arrives at the St. Michael’s Hospital emergency department with a significant head injury, perhaps from an accident on the skateboard he clutches in his hand. Dazed, he glances around the busy room trying to orient himself. Within moments of his arrival, Colin, a volunteer, is at his side, gently guiding him to a chair and taking his health card to the nurses’ check-in station.

People come to emergency departments (EDs) during some of the most stressful and difficult times of their lives, as patients, friends or family members. St. Michael’s Hospital and St. Joseph’s Health Centre – the acute-care sites in the Unity Health Toronto network – operate two of the busiest EDs in the Greater Toronto Area with almost 178,000 visits every year.

“Our ED is one of the most fast-paced and erratic places in the city, and the only trauma centre in downtown Toronto,” says Jenny, a community support worker at St. Michael’s. “Our team works incredibly hard just to keep up with the pace and our patient demographic keeps us on our toes day and night.”

“I just try to be sensitive, human, and totally focused on the experience someone is having. I have all the time in the world to be present with them. This is the best role for me,” says St. Michael’s Hospital volunteer Colin.

Unity Health’s 60 ED volunteers like Colin reflect the organization’s core values of by providing compassionate care to all in need.

Whether greeting a new arrival, helping a family locate a loved one, opening a door for a rushing EMS team, or getting a sandwich for someone who hasn’t eaten all day, volunteers offer vital assistance and peace of mind when people are at their most vulnerable.

“I’ll greet patients, help them inside, and take their health card so that they feel seen and heard. I hope they get comfort knowing that someone is looking out for them,” says Colin.

“People might come in here looking for a family member who’s been admitted. They may not have any details and they’re distressed just trying to locate their loved one. I can take them right to the bedside as quickly as possible.”

Colin’s compassion extends beyond patients and families. In an environment like St. Michael’s, people experiencing disadvantage frequently visit to get necessities.

“St. Michael’s is there for the patient and for the whole community. Someone will come in and say, ‘I need something to eat.’ I will bag a sandwich, fruit and juice for them. They might also need a pair of shoes or a winter hat; we keep all kinds of things to give to those who need it most,” says Colin.

“I just try to be sensitive, human, and totally focused on the experience someone is having. I have all the time in the world to be present with them. This is the best role for me.”

Says Jenny, “Colin is fantastic. Volunteers work out of the goodness of their hearts and ask for nothing in return. We are proud to have them here with us.”

There are a couple of new faces in the St. Joseph’s Emergency Department this year. Valentina Azzolin and Terry Bey both started as volunteers within the last several months.

“We are judicious in how we recruit ED volunteers,” says Michael Kidd, Unity Health’s director of Volunteer Services. “We look for proactive problem-solvers with great customer service skills, and people who are good listeners. They add tremendous value to the care experience.”

Azzolin came to Canada from Italy to learn English. Currently enrolled in Medical Administration classes, she spends every Wednesday at St. Joseph’s. She is soft-spoken, empathetic and calm – gifts she offers to patients looking for solace in the chaotic ED setting.

“I help out wherever I can. I often assist patients with their food trays and I bring warm blankets to patients who are cold. I help patients find their way through the emergency department. The staff is so busy so I try to do little things for patients,” says Azzolin.

Bey, a father of two hockey players, has visited St. Joseph’s ED on more occasions than he cares to count. “I always thought they were great here, and I wanted to give back.”

As a courtesy greeter, Bey is the first point of contact for patients. He relishes the many roles he plays in alleviating stress by offering assistance and helping them find their way within the ED and around the health centre. “I try not to just point people in the right direction. I add a personal touch and escort them to their destination. I walk about 10,000 steps in my three-hour shift!”

To illustrate her love for giving back, Azzolin compares her restaurant job to volunteerism.

“At work, I serve people food and nobody’s really grateful. Here, I will ask people, ‘how was breakfast?’ They are so happy to talk, so grateful. I am in the ED for three hours without pay and it feels much better than working for money. People appreciate the small things we can do for them.”


Emily Dawson works in communications at Unity Health.