Volunteer Vijaya Ranade at the West Island Palliative Care Residence (WIPCR) on the rewards of taking care of people and being fully present with the dying
“At the WIPCR, it’s like a home, like a family. Here, everybody chips in. Also I notice that if you have suggestions or ideas, they want to hear from you as a volunteer. I feel welcome and needed.”
By Devon Phillips. Vijaya Ranade launched into volunteer work when she lost her job in the aerospace industry 12 years ago. She credits her volunteer work with bringing her a profound sense of productivity and happiness as her lifelong dream has been to care for others. I met with Vijaya and the WIPCR volunteer coordinator Sandra Watson, on the West Island, Québec.
Q: Tell me about yourself. How did you get into volunteering?
A: I always wanted to do something for the community. When I was working full time as an administrator in the aerospace industry I did not have much time. Then I lost my job when I was 57 years old and I could not find another one. So I took the NOVA volunteer course about 12 years ago. I did the course for patient care and I worked doing home visits, taking patients to hospital for chemo treatments and such as a volunteer driver. And then they told me that as a volunteer, I could go to the open house for the WIPCR. So I put my name on the list, and I have been working here since it opened on October 15 2002. You know I was born in India and my father was always helping people as a lawyer and politician so I think it’s in my DNA!
Q: You have been volunteering at the WIPCR since 2002! You are a pro! When you first started, what was your impression of the residence?
A: It was like a place that makes people comfortable, especially the patients. When I started as a volunteer, I was made welcome and I still feel welcome every time I go there. People at the WIPCR say, “thanks for coming”. It’s not like I am ever taken for granted.
Q: When you first started at the WIPCR, what kinds of tasks or jobs were you doing?
A: There was only one place open, doing laundry on Fridays. So I took that, and then eventually I took a six-week patient care course at the WIPCR. The course covered what are the boundaries because we know the patient comes first, taking care of them and their family. So they teach things like if the door is closed that means that they don’t want to be disturbed. Just because you are a volunteer you can’t just march in and ask if they want tea. I also helped the nurse to give baths, make beds, feed patients. One lady had no one so the nurse asked me to go and sit there so the patient would know someone was there, so I offered my presence. To me this is really rewarding. When I go home at the end of the day, I feel that I have used my time well, that I have done something.
In my career I worked as an administrator with budgets and so on, so I asked if they needed help like that so now I do one day, Mondays, in administration. And then I saw that the kitchen is always busy- it’s like a house, and the sink never stays empty and I said, “I don’t cook and I don’t bake, but I have a pair of hands and I can do the dishes.” So I am in the kitchen on Fridays
Q: Tell me about being present with a patient. What is that like?
A: Sometimes you can feel upset, especially if it is a younger person. But I am calm. The nurses tell me, “Vijaya, just be there, read to them or just be present”. And once or twice the nurse has asked me to help to change the gown and you can see sometimes the patient is taking their last breaths. It is so peaceful. I never feel scared.
Q: Do you feel there is something about you that makes you able to look after people who are dying?
A: Yes I think so. You know I always wanted to take care of people. When I left India at 22, I went to England and I worked to provide income for my family while my husband did his master’s degree. I was bringing home a paycheck to survive but it was not in my heart.
Q: What is in your heart?
A: Just helping people. As a teenager, I would have said that I just wanted to be a mom. I am the third of four sisters. Four girls! That’s why my parents never went to the hospital to die. Usually in Indian culture they say you need a boy, to continue your name, but I always say that the girl is more important. One of my older sisters took early retirement and she and her husband took care of my mother with Alzheimer’s for 14 years. Both of my parents died at home with the doctor visiting them.
Q: How would you describe the WIPCR to patients and their family members?
A: My friends ask me, “How can you do this work? People are dying there”. And I say, “this is a most happy place.” I know saying this is different from what one expects. But to me, I know that when the patient walks in, he is not going to be getting out – it is not like a hospital where you will be getting better so they are living that emotion, that they are at the end of their life. But when they enter here, it is so nice.
Q: What is so nice, so special, about the WIPCR?
A: It is the atmosphere. It’s like you are coming to a home and your family is there and they are welcoming you. My family doctor went to visit someone here and he said that this is the best place and we should have more places like this. We welcome not only the patient but the family members. Sometimes we just give them a hug or sit with them. You know if their spouse is dying, they just want to be with you for 10 minutes, they just want to open up to talk about their life, for you to be there, to listen to them.
Q: Tell me, do you know the other volunteers here?
A: Oh yes! I am part of the Friday gang because I used to work with the same volunteers on Friday. We sometimes go to dinners or movies or have potlucks. I have made a lot of friends and I say the residence has been lifesaving for me because after losing my job, I was alone, my son was grown up, so I had no family and this place has became my family. So I am giving my day but I am receiving a lot more – I have a reason to get up and go and do something. I am needed. I am important here.
Q: What advice/information would you have for someone interested in becoming a volunteer?
A: I have a friend who is a really good cook and I told her, there are so many things you can do like fundraising or you could come once a week and bake cookies. You don’t have to be with patients if this is not what you want. There is so much work! If they let me, I would come five days a week to volunteer. I honestly would. Now I do four hours on Monday and six on Friday. I file, I photocopy- I am just happy to do something useful.
Sometimes in the summer when I am out walking I thank God I have a pension and I have my little house on this earth. But we all come into the world alone and we leave alone. I am not afraid of the end of life, and this is my goal, to help others.
Q: Sounds like the WIPCR is a high functioning family. It is encouraging to know that volunteers are so integral to the team.
A: (answered by volunteer coordinator Sandra Watson): We have 280 volunteers. And without the volunteers, the residence could not run - we would not be able to function because they do the laundry, patient care, kitchen, maintenance, and gardens, just everything. Some people might be nervous because they do not want to work directly with the patients but we have so many volunteer opportunities, there is something for everyone and we need volunteers. We have an amazing team here.