It’s been quite a busy week for me as a trainee Breast Cancer support volunteer! I have been on a few patient visits with my handler and have just recently begun to fully grasp the intricacies and responsibilities of the position I have taken on.
One of the visits this week really struck a chord in my heart…
We received a call from one of our local hospitals inviting us to visit a patient who had undergone a mastectomy the day before.
When we arrived our patient was already sitting up (on her own) in her bed and I felt decidedly in awe of that fact – I was a rather pathetic patient in comparison, especially on day 2.
Unfortunately she was not able to communicate in English so we had one of the sisters interpret for us – to explain to her exactly why we were there and for us to hand her one of our care packs.
There was very little that I felt could contribute so I stood next to her bed and nodded and smiled encouragingly at her as my handler demonstrated how to position the little comfort cushion under her left mastectomy arm, how to put the drain in the little cloth bag and how to hook it over her arm so she could keep her hands free when going to the bathroom etc. And in the background the translations were taking place.
She still looked rather shell shocked and more than a little unsure of us and our “gifts”. I was worried that some important details may be lost in the translation process and that she may not receive the full benefit of our visit.
So I continued to smile and nod idiotically the whole time and a whole lot more, trying to convey some reassurance. Which I’m sure must have confused her terribly especially when my handler was explaining to her how to use the soft prosthesis in her bra – even the male sister interpreting for us looked a little uncomfortable!
But when my handler asked him to explain to the patient that both her and I had had similar surgeries she turned her gaze back towards us – initially with undisguised shock and then with the biggest brightest smile. She grasped our hands in turn with her right hand and planted a robust kiss on our palms.
I was taken by surprise – firstly by her strength: she was quite strong for a small woman only a day out of surgery! – and secondly exactly how that brief outburst made me feel (it may or may not have brought a tear to my eye…).
I had always thought the bags, the pillows, handing out the boob prostheses, helping to provide a semblance of dignity and support to our patients, saying the right things and exuding positivity were the most important functions of my job as a volunteer… And I finally understood EXACTLY why the organisation relies only on breast cancer survivors to visit breast cancer patients ….
There is nothing anyone can say or do, even without language barriers, to make you feel better – like you are ever going to be normal and ok again.
Those first days post-surgery are the lowest, loneliest and most awful times as a woman – you are sore, uncomfortable, sad, angry and completely insecure. I had always felt that perhaps it was not the ideal time for volunteers to try and provide support. Most women were still suffering from the shock of the situation they found themselves in, often trying to come to terms with the death of their previous lives and waiting for the results of tests which would possibly confirm whether there will be a future life, to be open to “hear” how things are going to EVER get better….
But looking at that woman smiling for the first time since we arrived as interlopers at her bedside, I realised everything else we brought with us was pretty irrelevant to her.
The only thing that really mattered was that at that very moment two women were standing in front of her having gone through a similar trauma, carrying on with what looked like normal lives, walking around and looking just like any other “normal” women. But even more significantly, I’m sure, was the simple fact that we were able to do so because we were alive…
“Circumstances in life often take us places that we never intended to go. We visit some places of beauty, others of pain and desolation”. Kristin Armstrong
“Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to a divine purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others…for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labours of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.” Albert Einstein
“The interior joy we feel when we have done a good deed is the nourishment the soul requires.” Albert Schwitzer