I was 23 years old and I had everything going for me. I had graduated as a nurse from St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital School of Nursing a little more than two years previously and, recently back from a post-graduate operating room course in Toronto; I landed my dream job as head nurse at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital operating room.
While scrubbing for an orthopedic case one morning, I was called back for a repeat chest X-ray. Five days later, I was admitted to the sanatorium in St. John’s (known as the ‘san’) for pulmonary tuberculosis (TB) treatment. My charmed life and my dreams were shattered.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, TB treatment meant total bed rest with bathroom privileges only. I was prescribed 24 pills per day and two injections per week – and the belief of the day was that raising your arms over your head would interfere with the healing process. I could sit up, but couldn’t go for a walk and at 23 years old, the worst of all fates – I could not wash my hair.
After being a very good patient for almost three weeks, I could not stand it anymore. One night after midnight, I sneaked into the bathroom and washed my hair in the sink!
That night I vowed that if I ever made it back to my nursing life and eventually retirement, I would volunteer to do shampoos for patients who could not do their own.
Forty years later, in 1999, I had been retired from nursing for only three months. Our five children were independent. I was still haunted by that terrible experience of being unable to shampoo my hair for days and days. I had worked at St. Clare’s Hospital for more than 30 years, so I contacted the hospital’s coordinator of volunteer resources to discuss my hair washing idea. The coordinator of the time was delightfully supportive and I was thrilled.
Fulfilling a Promise
I was welcomed to 6 East on Saturdays. I wash the hair of those that cannot do their own, and I have my own supplies – shampoo, conditioner and blow dryer. Staff on 6 East made my work a joy when I began volunteering, and although there have been many changes, they still do!
Just do it!
If you are thinking about volunteering – do it! It is life-giving and the volunteer is definitely on the receiving end! I have no doubt that I gain so much more from my volunteering than I ever hope to give. ■
This story was written by Mary Keiley, a retired nurse with Eastern Health and volunteer at St. Clare’s Hospital.