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Published Friday 19 Jan 2024

Meet Jean, the 92-year-old volunteer providing some much needed comfort to Wellington Regional Hospital cancer patients

Jean volunteers with the Cancer Society and part of her role is to introduce the Cancer Society in a gentle way to new patients, to make them aware of the facilities and support available.

But Jean goes above and beyond with her volunteering, lending a much needed listening ear and trying to make the patients she sees regularly as comfortable as possible.

Read on to learn how Jean dedicates her time and brings a little bit of fun to her volunteer shifts.


Tell us about your volunteer role and what it’s like working with the patients.

“When I first started I had a buddy with me to show me the ropes but I eventually moved onto visiting by myself. I began to develop a routine specific to me. We were given guidelines and until you've done the job, you don't know how you'll react to the patients. Sometimes there's a need for reassurance, especially with new people. They need more attention and without appearing like a travelling salesman, it's quite nice to say to people ‘have you had any help from the Cancer Society?’ 

I come in on Monday every week and patients often do the same, so you get to know them. And it's lovely, that little bit of familiarity is terrific, it gives them confidence. 

I make a point of asking the receptionist if there are any new people. They really need reassuring because it’s a strange environment for them.

I become quite involved with the people and I think they quite enjoy the fact that they can talk to somebody who's non-medical. They often pour out their problems about how they tell their family, how they deal with their partners.

Conversation with the patient is one thing, but conversation with a caregiver is quite different. I have had experiences where I've asked a wife or a husband how they’re coping and they burst into tears. They carry quite a burden. They need some understanding as well. 

There is, however, a bit of fun going on in the ward, a bit of humour, which goes a long way with some people. On one occasion it was very quiet, and I said to them, ‘oh this is quiet’ and they said ‘yes, it's very boring’. And I said, ‘well, would you like me to do a pole dance for you?’ They absolutely loved it! 

I think my role would be different to the person who does it on a Tuesday or Wednesday. It's the kind of role that you grow into and you develop it in a way you feel comfortable.” 


How long have you been doing the volunteering here at Wellington Regional Hospital?  

“Well, I worked in a hospital until I retired. I had a couple of lovely years of retirement with my husband who passed away. Then I thought I'd like to do some voluntary work.

I sort of came upon The Cancer Society by accident; a friend who was a volunteer had to call in there, and I walked in with her and thought ‘I quite belong here’. So, I volunteered as a driver for about five years. 

The team system was organised and I was invited to be part of it, and I think that that would be about 15 years ago. 

We are termed as ‘hosts’ which to me sounds a funny name for it because it sounded like a bit of a tea party. You know, a cocktail party or something and it's far from that. But it's a way of doing tea and coffee and food and a little bit of comfort, a little bit of conversation, whether it's about a knitting pattern or what not.” 


What was your role when you worked in a hospital?  

“I trained as a laboratory technologist and in those days, it's quite different from the training now. It was my first job and I applied to be a trainee. It was a five year training course in the laboratory and we had to know a little bit about everything; haematology, cross matches, TB work, microbiology, pathology and we had to work in the Mortuary.

Because of that background I was quite familiar with work being done on the ward. And sometimes I see somebody struggling to find a vein, and I think, hang on a minute, I could do that. 

I mean you don’t have to have a hospital background to do what I'm doing but it just meant that it made me more comfortable.” 


What does a typical day look like for you here?  

I usually arrive at 9.30am although the official hours are 10am until 2pm.

It's usually quiet in the mornings, so first thing I do is set up a tray of biscuits I buy and bring in,  (I don't have to do this, but I know how much the patients love a biscuit so I usually bring some chocolate biscuits or some shortbread) I sterilise the trolley, and make sure everything's in order.

I go around and ask if patients would like tea or coffee. You have ones who sort of wave you away because they're feeling really unwell, but then I come back later and see if they're feeling more comfortable and would like something. That goes on until about quarter to twelve, and then I set up the trolley for lunch, which is fairly basic, but it’s nutritional and delicious. 

Some patients you would think that they were dining at the Ritz, they’re so impressed with what they're given! 

I'm also aware of people who, because of ulcerations in the mouth or effects of chemotherapy, the thought of food is absolutely repulsive. I’ll offer to cut up a sandwich into little pieces for them and sometimes they can cope with that, and sometimes they can't.  

The sandwiches are always the same. Not very interesting. I don't know who organises it but I'd like to have a word in the ear of the dietitian! Patients think the sandwiches are lovely though. They have a double sandwich and a piece of fruit and yogurt. On celebration days, we might have crackers and cheese, which they love.  

I stay until it's appropriate to go; sometimes I can finish at 2pm but you play it by ear as occasionally I’m involved in a good conversation with somebody and conversation can be very rewarding for me.” 


Do you find that people share a lot about their lives? 

They do. You learn a terrific amount. You learn that they’re reading the works of William Shakespeare or their political opinions, in fact a lot of people want to share their opinions on politics. It's fascinating the things you talk about. 

Somebody will bring in a lovely recipe for you because you mentioned you don't quite know how to make something.

They are just so lovely. They tell you all sorts of things about their lives. They show you photographs of their children and their grandchildren and tell you a few secrets about themselves. Not confessions, as such, but how they feel about the future. 

It's one of the most rewarding things I've ever done. You hope that you can do something to make them feel a bit more comfortable. 

Even when they tell you things about themselves, I think that's a relief to them to be able to talk to somebody and they know that it's not going to go any further; they know that they're in a situation where everything is totally confidential.” 


What would you say to someone who wants to start volunteering with the Cancer Society? 

“It's interesting you should say that because you can't explain what it's going to be like. You can tell them that you work in a ward, that you have patients and that they are cancer patients. But when we first set up the team we had some people who found the environment too hard, it upset them and it wasn't for them at all. 

Personally though, I would tell them to go and talk to the Cancer Society.  I love what I do and I wouldn't be doing anything else. People do it for various reasons. Some of them have had cancer in their family which guides them in that direction. They have all kinds of charity things where they need volunteers and it suits some people. But to me, the patient contact is really important.”