A chance visit builds “a second family” for volunteer

Neil Sweeny-web (1).jpgFrom the very start, volunteering at Markham Stouffville Hospital (MSH) felt right for Neil Sweeney. 

Newly retired from a distinguished career in policing that spanned more than 40 years, 33 of which was with the Toronto Police Service, Neil and his wife, Carol, were visiting a friend who worked as a nurse in the Chemotherapy Clinic when the friend asked Carol how Neil’s retirement was going. 

“My wife said I really needed something to do,” Neil said with a laugh. Their friend suggested he meet with Magda Rigo, the head of Community Services (Volunteers) at the time, to explore a possible volunteer role. “We quickly hit it off and by chance there was a volunteer opening available in the Chemotherapy Clinic. I knew this was the right place for me to be.”

Now, 14 years later, Neil has spent nearly every Monday and, initially also, Thursday, volunteering in the Chemotherapy Clinic and says he could never imagine being anywhere else.  

“It’s really a privilege to interact with the patients and to work alongside such compassionate and caring healthcare professionals. The MSH team has truly become my second family,” he explained. 

What Neil also cherishes is how his volunteer work allows him to be “lighter” than he could be in his “previous life.” 

He shares the special way he greets patients in the Chemotherapy Clinic. “I ask them ‘can I get you a pillow? And oh, in rapid succession, would you like an orange juice, apple juice, rum and coke, gin and tonic, Pina colada, single malt scotch, Guinness or a nice Australian shiraz? We also have a fine Don River Chablis.’” 

Of course, there’s no alcohol available, but for Neil it’s about “getting the smiles from the patients and seeing their anxiety eased even just a little bit. That makes my day.” 

For Community Resources Coordinator Sue Bautista, Neil’s caring ways and ability to connect with the patients, doctors, and staff is matched only by his dedication. 

“Volunteers are only required to provide one shift per week and Neil, as all the chemotherapy volunteers, regularly cover more shifts when someone is sick or on vacation,” she said.

Neil’s exceptional service has not gone unnoticed. He’s been recognized as part of the MSH Heroes program, which allows patients and families to acknowledge a staff member, physician or volunteer who has made a difference in their care experience with a donation in their name. 

As well, he was selected as the winner of MSH’s inaugural Honoured to Care, Commitment award. These awards recognize staff, physicians and volunteers who go above and beyond to live the hospital’s values of respect, trust, commitment, compassion and courage.

However, Neil is quick to deflect the praise and admits he almost feels “embarrassed” by all the attention. 

“I keep thinking ‘why me?’ There are so many amazing people here who do so much and we’re all just part of one outstanding Markham Stouffville Hospital team.”