After I turned 60 I figured that since I was getting older, I had better start cramming for my finals.I was sick of just writing checks for charity and buying cheese from the school kids. I wanted hands-on helping, like maybe saving children from warlords in Africa. So I went to a local café to ponder how I could get started. I ordered fair trade coffee but the barista told me they didn’t have any. I sat there drinking my four-dollar, unfair trade caramel macchiato, thinking about all the things I would do to help the downtrodden when a guy sat down beside me. He was playing a very noisy game on his cell phone. I tried to ignore him and focus on what Bono or Bob Geldof would do in this situation. And then I got thinking, “Which one is cuter? Bob or Bono? Bob? Bono?”
Hot men. Hot coffee. Hot men. Hot coffee. And the guy kept beeping his phone and I was getting ticked off, so I started doing a chant I learned at hot yoga. Namaste, I said under my breath. Bless him.
Finally, I turned to him and said, “Will you please SHUT UP!” Okay, I didn’t really say that, because I am a people-pleaser. And what if he didn’t like me? But I did start to question how I would ever deal with African warlords if I couldn’t handle a few beeps from a cell phone.
This existential pondering caused me to have a serious anxiety attack. No, I have that backwards. I thought I was having a heart attack, called 911, and when I got to the emergency room and saw the waiting time, then I had the anxiety attack. I got labeled “urgent,” which isn’t nearly as fast as it sounds. I sat there so long that someone asked me if I was an organ donor.
After four hours, I met Amiel, a blue-haired woman wheeling a silver coffee cart. Amiel on Wheels. She was living proof that the heart of any hospital is the volunteers (and maybe the cardiac surgeons). She was the quintessential volunteer. Over a couple of Peek Freans and some water thinly disguised as coffee, she informed me that she had joined the hospital volunteer team during the Korean War. It was two dollars a year for her membership and she did it only for the free volunteer luncheon. Over her career as a volunteer, she said she’d come to love helping others. Sadly, she confessed, she had seen many changes in charity work over the years. It was getting harder and harder to help people, she said, what with more germs, more fears, and more rules.
For instance, since the advent of the Privacy Act, she isn’t allowed to tell anyone outside the hospital who’s staying there. That’s crazy! Think about it. Why would an eighty-five-year-old woman risk breaking a hip if she couldn’t bring back a little gossip to the seniors centre?
I don’t know if it was Amiel or the forty percent oxygen I was huffing, but my breathing finally settled. That’s when I had my second epiphany. I wasn’t supposed to go to Africa. Sure, I was to think globally, but I had to act locally. I was being called to be a hospital volunteer. Of course, I could never work in the emergency ward, not where people are bleeding, or complaining, or throwing up. Puking makes me gag. And I’d never help with patients; I can’t sing Christmas carols or sponge-bath dirty old men. No, I couldn’t do that, but I could use my humour. I could be Patch Adams. I could make jokes in the coffee room with the First Response Team. (Which are cuter: cops or paramedics?)
In a flush of excitement, I announced my intentions to Amiel and in a second her face turned to stone. She looked like I had just announced the bus trip to Branson, Missouri had been canceled. She hissed at me, “There is at least a six-month waiting period.”
“Volunteering is not just helping out, you know,” she declared. “We weed out the fickle ones. The high school kids who want a form signed. The ‘cons doing community hours.”
“Amiel, I haven’t done time,” I defended. “I live on Amherst Island.”
“How do you think they populated Australia?” she retorted. “There’s due process. You have to have a police check.”
I started fantasizing about a cop patting me down and said, “Amiel, they can do a cavity search for all I care. I haven’t been able to get in to see a doctor in months.”
She didn’t crack a smile. I could see she had never heard of Patch Adams.
“Look, missy, this red apron is not given out to just anybody,” she said. Then she sold me a 50-50 ticket and wandered off to spread her bad coffee and whitener to other unsuspecting sick people.
I checked myself out. As I was leaving the hospital, a very disturbed woman stormed past me, and the security guard, whose head was the size of a turnip, picked her up and put her out on the sidewalk. All she wanted was her meds. That woman might have been having a bad day, but one thing is certain — she is more resourceful than I am. She stood out in the ambulance bay and took off all her clothes. Believe me, when you stand buck-naked in the hospital, you get service. In fact, they bring the drugs right out to the street for you.
That’s when I had my third epiphany: It’s as hard to get good service, as it is to give it. I went home, wrote a cheque to Bono, and binged on the cheese order I had just gotten delivered from the school kids.
This is published from my book That Which Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Funnier.