Volunteer Robert Patterson at the Montreal Children’s Hospital on tricks to soothe distressed children and the happiness that comes from living in the moment
“My advice for someone thinking about volunteering? Do it if you want to because it’s very rewarding.”
By Devon Phillips. Having retired from teaching analytical chemistry and running a lab at Concordia University, Robert Patterson decided he wanted to volunteer with children. Now his greatest happiness comes from connecting with children of all ages, and whenever possible, bringing a smile to their faces. I met with Robert at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, Montréal, Québec.
Q: How long have you been a volunteer at the Montreal Children’s Hospital (MCH)?
A: Exactly three years. We don’t have a palliative care unit here. It’s more by chance that you get involved with a dying child, and since you don’t know the child is dying, you almost always think of it as comforting a sick child. However, I have been involved with children who have died.
I’m here because I love the Children’s Hospital. I admire the nurses, the staff and the parents - the people who work here are a special group.
Q: Do you have a history of doing volunteering? What brought you here to the MCH?
A: I do other volunteer work at my church and I help as a volunteer at the McGill arboretum this time of year when they have sugaring off tours for children. Again, I like being with children.
I am retired and want to contribute in some way. I have always enjoyed children. I have two sons and two granddaughters myself.
Q: May I ask about your previous career?
A: At Concordia University I was an analytical chemist and we ran a lab where we worked for outside industry. I taught analytical chemistry as a part-time job. It was fun, sort of like CSI. I retired about 15 years ago.
Q: What happened – did you apply to become a volunteer? How does it work?
A: This really was kind of strange. I had always thought that I wanted to do it but didn’t realize that you could volunteer here. I didn’t expect that someone like me with no experience could come in and work with kids. I was taking a first aid course and an instructor mentioned that she had been a nurse at the Children’s Hospital. I asked, “do you ever use volunteers?” And she said, “Yes! Just find the website and print out the application form.” You have to get someone to provide a letter of reference, but that was all there was to it. And here I am.
Q: Were you asked if there was a specific area you wanted to work in?
A: There was a choice, but the ward was the only thing I was interested in. There are other areas not involving children. There are a lot of volunteers here, mostly CEGEP and university students. But my first choice was the ward because I wanted to connect with the children.
Q: Are the children you volunteer with all ages- the very young to teenagers?
A: They are all ages. The children in oncology tend to be older while in the other wards there are more babies and younger kids. So, there is a wide range of ages.
There is a unit here called the TDU or the Technology Dependent Unit where the patients are often on ventilators to enable them to breathe. The age ranges from 1 to 11.
I had a 17-day-old baby in the ICU last week and I just held her. It’s a situation where if the parents can’t be there then the children need you more. My function is really just contact with the kids in a lot of cases.
Q: Is that the same for older children too?
A: Some of the older children need to be held too. There is a five year old that I often visit in the TDU and most of the time we talk and play but sometimes she wants to snuggle so we snuggle, that’s fine with me!
Q: What do the kids call you?
A: This is the only place you’ll hear me called “Robert”. I go by “Bert” everywhere else. I try to tell the kids my name is Bert, but no, they call me Robert – so that’s the name on my ID tag.
Q: Do you feel part of a team?
A: I am working as an individual but I have been here for three years and I have gotten to know a lot of people and so you feel part of a team – we are part of a team in terms of the help and support that we receive from the volunteer office and the staff.
I know quite a few other volunteers and we are part of a community. The volunteer office organizes get-togethers and pizza parties. Being a man I’m in the minority. There are five or six of us and we’re badly outnumbered at the parties. But it’s good to meet the other volunteers and talk to them.
Q: Do you to get to know the families?
A: I get to know some of the families but only in the hospital. The children in the TDU may be there for many months to many years and you realize how hard it is for the parents.
Q: What advice would you have for someone thinking about volunteering at the MCH?
A: I don’t talk to many people outside the hospital about what I am doing. I have a feeling it makes people uncomfortable, mainly because some of them really could not or would not want to do something like this.
But my advice for someone thinking about volunteering? Do it if you want to because it’s very rewarding. And there are so many rewards. Let’s face it, if a child smiles at you or you can get a child to stop crying or they are glad to see you come into the room, you go home feeling really good.
I can spend my whole day sitting and playing with children. That’s fun even when they’re sick. If a child is crying and you can get them to stop, the reward is that you’ve made a difference.
Q: And what are some of your strategies to soothe a child?
A: Rocking chairs, singing and soothers are the standards. If the child isn’t connected to tubes or monitors, walking will often work. With some children it’s hard. Techniques that I learned from nurses include sitting the child on your lap facing the door so they can watch the traffic in the hallway, and, particularly effective for babies, cradling them in your arms and lifting them up and down in an exaggerated rocking motion.
Q: Let’s talk about the seriously ill child. How do you become close but not so you get hurt?
A: Most of the time you don’t know if a child is dying so you don’t think about it. Of the three children I have spent time with that have passed away, it was only the first with whom I was very close that I was aware was dying. At that point though she had left the hospital and other than short visits when she visited clinics, I was spared the sad part. The second, although I knew that the parents had requested a DNR, I never considered the possibility that he would die. The third was a complete surprise.
As a volunteer, you are happy to have children go home, but when they die, you can’t help being sad.
Q: Looking ahead, so you see yourself continuing to volunteer?
A: I love it here. I would not leave voluntarily! There was another volunteer who I met when I first came who was in his 80s so there is no reason I can’t keep going as well! I will do this as long as I can, I really will.