Seeds Sown in the ‘San’


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.

The Vow

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

Mary Keiley, retired Eastern Health nurse and volunteer.

Mary Keiley, retired Eastern Health nurse and volunteer.

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!

Twelve years later, I am still enjoying very much my Saturday mornings on 6 East. The physical work is much lighter since the lovely, efficient and ever pleasant Joanne joined me about five years ago.


Just do it! 

Volunteer with Eastern Health!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. 

To learn more about volunteer opportunities at Eastern Health , please call the Volunteer Resources office at (709) 777-4451 or email: volunteer.resources@easternhealth.ca.

This story was written by Mary Keiley, a retired nurse with Eastern Health and volunteer at St. Clare’s Hospital.

51 responses to “Seeds Sown in the ‘San’

  1. Mary, I think what you are doing is wonderful! Three years ago, I had to go to Halifax for surgery and there was a heat wave at the time. I wash my hair every morning and I wasn’t allowed to have a shower for a few days and it was too hard for me to bend over the sink to wash my hair. My hair got so greasy and wet from sweating that I was out of mind. I didn’t want anyone I knew to see me like that. I finally got the chance to wash my hair very painfully and it was heaven! I wish there was someone like you there at that time. Keep up the good work. Thanks LH

    • Mary (Mick) to those of us who trained at St. Clares with you. Just read your wonderful story sent to me by Ann (Mackey) Power. Your volunteering is a blessing to many I am sure. You look great in the photo. Take care Carol (Kirby) Burke Toronto.

  2. Mary, what a wonderful story! You are a wonderful and kind lady and I wish you all the health and happiness in the world.

  3. Mary… I remember you well from St. Clare’s……Your care & kindness was always very obvious……Wonderful Story……God Bless….

  4. I,too remember Mary from St, Clare’s. It was after my daughter was born & I wanted to get home-which was 100 miles away. Nurse Mary came in to see me & said she heard I was anxious to go home-I said yes I really was! She says”how are the roads up the Southern Shore now?” I says “O It’s all paved now! She just sort of laughed & said “I was up to Trepassey on Sunday” (some of the highway at the time wasn’t good at all -in the process of being paved) She then told me she was originally from Trepassey! I think I was discharged very shortly after!! Wonderful work you are doing Mary-lots more like you are needed!! All the Best to you!!

  5. Mary you are a wonderful person,you thought me well to be the best nurse that I can be and what a surprise I had when I saw you coming in the room to wash hair at St.Clares when I was in Hospital.I appreciated that very much.Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  6. Mary you are a great person,I’m sure the people loved to see you visit.Sometimes the least little thing would brighten a sick persons day.Good luck with your continued support to those who love seeing you.

  7. You are so right about the washing hair bit. I recently was a patient at st. Clare’s and had surgery for broken femur due to cancer. Needless to say I was vey sick. After about 4 days I really wanted my hair washed, and my nurse was really happy to help me with that by pouring jugs of water over my head.I felt so much better. I’m sure the service you are providing to patients is much appreciated.

  8. I remember well your Saturday visits to 6 east! Us staff and the patients very much appreciate the kindness and work you do! And of course, the occasional cookies were a welcomed treat! Thanks so much for all you do!

  9. Mary, you were a god send to us. I loved seeing you come down the hallway Saturday mornings with a blank piece of paper in your hand asking us which patients needed their hair washed. I brag about you all the time here at Western Memorial Hospital. You have been a positive influence to me. I make an effort to wash patient’s hair every time I work. For some, it’s more important then medications, tests and the like. Thank you!

  10. I worked on 6 east when I graduated nursing and can remember the generosity of Mary. Such a positive contribution to people’s health. Wonderful to see this!!! Speak about you often yo my coworkers at Brookfield, how kind indeed. There is no better feeling than having your hair washed when you are sick..kudos to u Mary and Joanne!

  11. Mary,
    I too worked on 6EAST FOR 21 YEARS ……It was so wonderful to see you coming every Sat Morning ! I didnt know the story behind why you started doing it ….this just makes it even more special 🙂
    You are truly an awesome person ……and at this time in such challenging times and busy workdays ,,,,,it is even more valuable .The patients love you (and Joanne )….sometimes it is the most “basic” of care that means so much !!!
    Thanks for your story …and thanks for being sooo wonderful !!!

    Wanda Dray

  12. Great story Aunt Mary and one excellent example of how someone can take a life’s lemon and turn it into deliciously beautiful lemonade. I see lots of examples of how you do this sort of thing and I greatly admire you for it.

  13. I worked on 6East for 7 years, and the relief we felt on the days when we knew Mary was coming could not be measured. Knowing that our patients would get that little extra tlc that day was always such a good feeling, especially on the busiest days when we knew we couldn’t do it alone. Mary, your kindness, patience and compassion does not go unnoticed by Nurse or Patient. Something so simple but means the world to those Patients and us Nurses.

  14. Once a nurse who cares always a nurse who cares. it was drilled into us during our training . I can only speak from my experience it still is with me each day at work. Mary was one of my instructors during my nursing training and made a n impact on how I took care of my patients . Treat them like you would your own family members. Keep doing what you do best

  15. I also know Mary from nursing school,she was a caring and supportive instructor and instilled her values to all her students.Thank you for ALL you did and continue to do! What a nice way to enjoy your retirement !

  16. Mary, such a beautiful story. You are truly a wonderful person and to take a set back at an early age in your nursing career and turn it into a most rewarding one—volunteerism– I am sure the many patients who received a hair wash from you really appreciated your kindness and I know you brought a smile and comfort to many faces, with your kind, and loving care. Thank you for sharing your story and thank you for being you. May God Bless you as you continue volunteering!

  17. How do i respond to all these wonderful comments?I’ll just say that i feel so blessed to be able to do a service that I love and really believe in.It is also nice to connect with so many old friends, former students and patients and thank you all so very much
    .I hoped when i started this that by now we would have a shampoo team on every unit but we do not.If any of you know anyone interested pass on the info.It is barely 1/2 day every weekend and the appreciation of patients and staff is amazing and so rewarding.
    God bless Mk

  18. Yes, I saw this and had to respond with a big heart felt “thank you!”!! As, my daddy Peter Byrne was on 6 east for a long time and my Mom being ill herself ( stage 4 bone cancer) were more than delighted by Mary Keiley’s much appreciated volunteer work of washing dad’s hair….thank you so very much,you have no idea what it has meant to us, God bless you!!!

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  20. Hello Nurse Keiley, just this past weekend I was telling my daughter about this wonderful lady who volunteered at St. Claire’s when my dad was there in 2012. He spent many weeks there and your Saturday morning visits meant the world to him and to us. I was so thrilled to read this article, I recognized your picture, if it’s recent, you haven’t changed a bit! Thank you so much for all you do. You used to enjoy my homemade tea buns, wish I could drop some in to you. Bless you.

    • Thank you Maisie, I’m sure I enjoyed my visits with him as well. We get to know our long-term patients and how they look forward to our visit on Saturdays..Mary

  21. Mary I knew it was you before I saw the picture of you. HUGS. I loved volunteering with you for years. And was so rewarding. Thanks you for being a great volunteer and such a great person. Miss you. XOXO

    • Thanks Yvonne-i was shocked to see they resurrected this old story that Sharon asked me to write to recruit some new volunteers way back in ’14..nice to hear from you xo

  22. Mary, your commitment to caring is inspirational. The healing power of your heart and your hands is so evident in the stories of those you have touched. I can see our dear friend and colleague, Kay, smiling lovingly from her heavenly home. You, my friend and colleague, exemplify the essence of kindness and all things good. Thank you and I am so proud to have been a part of the St. Clare’s family.

    • Hi Madge and thanks for your kind words, especially re. Kay-I still miss her so very much. The bit of service I do for a couple hours on the W/E pales in comp. to the multiple hours she gave…Hope all’s well with you and that you are enjoying a well deserved retirement.

  23. Mary, you are an inspiration to everyone who knows you, as well as every stranger you meet. When I started working at St.Clare’s School of Nursing in 1981, your kindness and compassion shone like a beacon of calm whenever you came into a room. You are to me everything a nurse should be, because of your caring heart. Those to whom you taught nursing were blessed to have you As an instructor. What your commitment to this weekly ministry does for the sick and feeble is comfort, ease, and the gentle healing touch of your hands. Much more than the words hair washing imply. Your experience in the sanitorium you led to this place of grace. You are truly one in a million. 👏☺

    • Thank you Jane for your beautiful words…I heard you call CBC few days ago and I said ‘thankfully you share your great wisdom with us all.’
      We have so many fond memories of those days Jane-we were a great team and all worked together for the cause.. our students and they didn’t disappoint.

  24. No big surprise that this lovely lady is out helping others ,long beyond her retirement! I like ,many others who commented here ,had the pleasure of having Mary as an instructor at St. Clare’s School of Nursing ! You were a woman with a big heart who took us all under your wing and mentored and encouraged us to do our best ! A great role model then and continues to be today! Thanks Mary for being such a kind, loving person !

    • Thanks Bernadette-great to connect on fb and remember…and to see how well you’ve done.Keep up the good work and I know how busy you must be…….

  25. Mrs Kielly was one of my nursing instructors at St. Clare’s. She was a kind and gentle person! How nice of you to give back to others. I’m sure it is greatly appreciated by all the staff and especially the patients!

    • Thanks Trina-I am thinking you must be Trina B..[we had over 2300 students graduate from the School and after 33 years I guess I knew
      more than 1500, and with the married name change, not easy to identify everyone…
      Yes trina it is a lovely service and I am blessed to be able to do it…and enjoy.

  26. Mrs. Keiley
    We all know a little kindness goes a long way.
    In your case however, your kindness and warmth has stretched across many miles as you taught us, your students, through example.
    I recall your kindness and calm demeanour throughout our program and I thank you for that. You are a mentor to us all.

    • Thanks RoseAnn..very kind of you to remember and write in re. all those years ago.You were one of the many Ryans, i think..the most ‘same surnames’ in one class.
      Thanks again and may see you at our annual dinner in June

  27. Hi Mary, so nice to read that you are healthy and well and still volunteering at St Clare’s. Keep up your kind gererousity and selflessness. Love and hugs

    • Well Hello Ethel, I remember your great sense of humour and how I loved to see you at our mtgs and I still miss you…a lot.It’s so great to connect even if this way..a little embarrassing really-It’s a lovely service-a much needed one and I thoroughly enjoy.. so no kudos for loving what you do and have the ability..
      Love and hugs to you and hope all’s well

  28. Hi Mary, what a wonderful and rewarding thing to do for others. I remember my days on 5 West and doing the same for those unable to do for themselves. We were so proud to see the happiness on their faces. Your story is inspiring as you yourself are. I am going to register as a volunteer as well but am away until the end of April. I have a couple of retired nurse friends whom I can get to do the same. Thank you for sharing.
    Carol Mackey

    • Hello Carol; Joanne and I would LOVE to have you on our ‘team’. We are always recruiting and so far not much luck..
      Thanks for your kind words, and it is a lovely service that you and any of your retired friends would love to be part of.
      We can all imagine how awful it must be to be unable to do your own shampoo, and as you said ,you did it when you could.

  29. What a wonderful story Mary,, I was blessed to have volunteered with You at St. Clare’s Hospital!!!! God Bless You!!!

    • Hi Emma-St. Clare’s was blessed to have your volunteer service for so long…nice to connect again Emma and hope you are enjoying your new digs…we all miss you

  30. I had the pleasure of having Mrs Kieley as an instructor at St.Clares School of Nursing.Mary you were and still are a very caring and wonderful nurse.You instilled in us to do our best and passed onto us your knowledge,caring ways,and supported us to do well.I am not surprised that you have taken on this nice gesture.to support patients even though you are retired..Thanks again for being their when I went threw my second year.I greatly appreciated your guidance,and support.

    • Hello Anne Marie;
      Thanks so much for writing and for your very kind words-This is a very old [true] story I wrote a few years ago to help Sharon recruit some new volunteers–of course I totally forgot FB articles NEVER die..altho’ when someone resurrected it this time I was a bit shocked.
      Nice to connect Anne Marie-I do love to think of those days-busy, but so productive and we had so many excellent nurses come out of the school,it was well worth the work

  31. The patients are very lucky to have you do that for them…and we on 6east are happy that you do what you do…love seeing you on Saturdays when I’m working…

    • Thanks Patricia;
      It is a very busy unit most Saturdays—but we must find you and say ‘Hello’. We are trying to recruit more volunteers to fill in when one of us cannot come in.
      See you next time

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