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Patients benefit from a smiling face

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Hospital volunteers help make surgery a less stressful event
By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Photo Caption: Alexandra Kalewska, a former volunteer at the cardiac ward at St. Paul's Hospital, enjoys visiting patients. Spreading by joy by sharing a smile and conversation helps patients deal with the stressful recovery process after surgery. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

When you’re a patient about to undergo heart surgery, a smiling face can help make the difference between despair and hope. Alexandra Kalewska is one of those smiling faces.

Kalewska has greeted many patients undergoing major surgery at St. Paul’s Hospital’s cardiac ward, and says the benefits of those visits are apparent in real time.

“To be present for these people” at their most vulnerable time is “a beautiful gift,” said the Christ the Redeemer parishioner. I want to make sure these people have a hope and a light, to know there are people who are there for them.”

The Christ the Redeemer parishioner recently attended a pilot event hosted by LifeCanada to train volunteers to visit the sick, lonely, or dying in hospital or hospice settings.

She has since stopped volunteering at the cardiac ward but may soon start reaching out to the ill through the St. Anthony’s Parish visiting program.

A willing listener or a helpful hand can go a long way in helping people recover from serious heart operations, including the post-surgery stress. She recently worked with a patient who was dealing with serious complications after surgery, as well as the tension of frequent family visits.

The visits, the complications, and the “arguments about best care for the loved one” were exhausting, and the patient confided to Kalewska the family drama was overwhelming. He wanted to “leave the hospital and climb in a hole.”

Kalewska, then a health sciences student who would deliver tea and cookies and play videos about surgery and post-operation care, became the light in his life.

“He enjoyed speaking to me and telling me what was on his heart. It was surprising to me to hear that just being there and listening helped him cope with this emotional stress.”

Kalewska began visiting him for conversation regularly and noticed his joy increasing, which in turn eased the tense family situation. “Stress affects you post-surgery,” she said. “The hours you give could affect someone in a monumental way.”

The will to live has to be nurtured, she said, recalling a family friend who recently died of breast cancer, after which her husband of 55 years admitted he had lost his will to live. That’s a tragedy for anyone, whether healthy or ill.

“I want the sick and elderly to never (reach the point of) wanting to die. I want to make sure nobody goes to that place where there is so much darkness.”

Sylvia Fawcus, whose father died of colon cancer in 2006, believes people on their deathbeds need to know they are loved and cared for.

“People need somebody to reach out. Human interaction can help,” said Fawcus.

Like Kalewska, Fawcus has also spent time helping the ill. She befriended a woman in a wheelchair who had serious seizures and difficulty communicating. Fawcus would take her to the pool for weekly swimming lessons.

“She was always ready and always happy when I would come. She started to open up more and more. She started to get more comfortable.”

Fawcus would guide her through the lesson for a few hours and help her wash chlorine out of her hair. “She had a little bit of sadness, because I don’t think her family was here,” but “she didn’t have despair.”

Fawcus hopes visiting and volunteer training programs will encourage more people to find ways to reach out to the ill and dying, especially since the legalization of assisted suicide.

“Just the thought of somebody despairing so much” that they would commit suicide out of loneliness or fear is “such a tragedy,” she said.

“If there is anything that can help them through those difficult times, that is the motive.”

Kalewska agrees. “We can't heal the dying, but we can bring Christ to them through our presence by giving comfort and hope in a difficult time of transition.”

For more information about LifeCanada’s Make Time for Life program, visit



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