From patient to volunteer: Celebrating our volunteers during National Volunteer Week

Our hospital wouldn’t be the same without the hundreds of dedicated volunteers we count on. Patients love them, staff appreciate them and families connect with them. And behind that red apron, every volunteer has an interesting story to share - especially those who were former patients themselves.

Jaymee Shell

  • Patient: Diagnosed with juvenile arthritis in 2006
  • Volunteer since November 2014

Jaymee Shell is no stranger to the Montreal Children’s Hospital; she was diagnosed with juvenile arthritis at age 15. “I hadn’t been feeling well for about six months, but I thought it was just stress,” she says. “Then I woke up one Sunday morning and I couldn’t get out of bed.” A couple of days later she was being treated at the Children’s by Dr. Rosie Scuccimarri. “I was never admitted, but I would sometimes spend up to 10 hours in the hospital because of all the specialists I had to see,” she says. She regularly met with her physiotherapist and occupational therapist and her mother had to give her weekly injections, on top of taking three pills a day. She even had to stop going to school. “But the hardest part was not being able to play hockey,” she says.

A couple of months later, she was back in the classroom and on the ice playing forward for the Lac St-Louis Midget Elites, but it took over a year before she started to feel normal again. She hasn’t had a flare-up since November 2006, and no longer takes medication, but the entire ordeal affected her tremendously. The 24-year-old is now finishing up a Master’s degree in Biomechanics at McGill University and is currently applying to medical schools across the country, but still manages to volunteer three hours a week in the Charles-Bruneau Hematology/Oncology Day Centre. “My experience really helps me connect with the patients, especially those who don’t look sick. I didn’t look sick either and people didn’t get it. I understand what it feels like to be stigmatized and I hope my time here helps kids forget that they’re in the hospital and they can just focus on having fun!”

Joseph Somech

  • Patient: Surgery to remove a brain tumour in 2003
  • Volunteer since July 2015

Joseph Somech was only seven years old when the double-vision started. He had been feeling nauseous and was vomiting for about a week, but when all of a sudden he could no longer see straight, his parents rushed him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with cerebellar astrocytoma, a non-cancerous brain tumour growing in his cerebellum, the part of the brain at the back of the skull. Joseph underwent a 10-hour surgery performed by Drs. Jeffrey Atkinson and Jose Luis Montes, and stayed in hospital for two weeks afterward. “They were able to remove the whole tumour, but I had to learn how to walk again,” says Joseph. “I did a lot of physiotherapy, because my coordination and balance was off. It’s still not 100 per cent but I am doing a lot better.”

Joseph is now a student at Dawson College in Health Sciences and is interested in pursuing a career in medicine or pharmacy. He hasn’t decided whether he’d like to work with children or with adults, but he’s determined to work in Neurology or Oncology. His hospital experience not only inspired him to pursue a career in health care, but also motivated him to begin volunteering at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. He now spends every Thursday evening in the Opération enfant soleil Pediatric Emergency department. He distributes games and toys to children in the waiting room and spends time talking and interacting with families. “When I was in the hospital, I found it very depressing because I felt alone, you know, alone with your condition,” he says. “I enjoy volunteering, because I love seeing the kids have fun and forgetting that they’re sick or in pain.”

Katya Rossokhata

  • Patient: Treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia from 2006 to 2009
  • Volunteer since January 2015

Katya Rossokhata was in and out of the Montreal Children’s Hospital for over three years while she battled acute lymphoblastic leukemia. She was diagnosed a few months before her family moved to Canada from the Ukraine. “Luckily it is one of the most treatable kinds of leukemia,” she says. “But it was still very scary because I was only nine years old.” She would sometimes spend months at a time in the hospital and remembers the volunteers who came to visit her. “They were very patient with me,” she recalls. “My mom couldn’t stand playing Monopoly with me anymore, but it was my favourite game, so the volunteers knew they always had to play it with me!”

Fast-forward six years and now Katya is the one playing Monopoly with inpatients. “It’s not as fun as I remember,” she laughs. She volunteers every Thursday evening on Sarah’s Floor, the Hematology-Oncology inpatient unit, and says her personal experience helps her connect with the patients. “Some of the patients ask me why I choose to volunteer in oncology and I tell them my story,” she says. “They seem reassured to know that I was once in their shoes and now I’m doing well.” The 19-year-old is currently in her second year of Biochemistry at McGill University, and is interested in pursuing a career in medicine. Besides volunteering, Katya also practices ballroom dancing and works three times a week in one of the Research Institute labs studying pediatric brain tumours. “I’m interested in clinical care and research. There is no doubt in my mind that I want to practice pediatric oncology. This is what I’m meant to do.”

Sharon Callaghan

  • Patient: Treated for pneumonia and jaundice in 1948
  • Volunteer since May 1996

“I don’t remember being in the hospital, but my mother told me I almost died. She said I looked like a plucked chicken!” Sharon Callaghan was admitted to the Children’s Memorial Hospital (the MCH’s original name) on Cedar Avenue on January 2, 1948, barely two weeks after she was born. She was suffering from a serious pneumonia and jaundice, and was placed in an oxygen tent. Her doctors didn’t think she was going to make it, so she was baptized the next day. “The witnesses on my baptism papers were two nurses who were working at the time,” she says. Eight days later Sharon was discharged, but her mother often spoke about how thrilled she was with the treatment her daughter received.

When Sharon retired in 1995, she decided it was time to give back to the hospital that had saved her life. She began volunteering in the 2B area of the Children’s and worked closely with the Child Life department. In 2000, she moved on to volunteering in the Dialysis unit. “I visited the same patient for three years and I liked the experience so much I decided to stay,” she says. “These children spend many hours in the hospital attached to a dialysis machine. I try to help by keeping them occupied or getting things for them since they can’t get up and walk around.” She now visits several patients on Wednesdays and looks forward to her shift every week. “I don’t have any grandchildren myself, but feel the patients are like grandchildren to me.”