There’s something about hospitals that makes you want to do whatever you can to help. Maybe it’s the helplessness you feel when you walk in the front door or the feeling of peace and calm that radiates from every hospital room. Whatever the reason, when you’re in a hospital, everything seems to slow down.
You might not always agree with how things are done in a hospital, but you can’t argue with the results. As a visitor, you’ve simply got to go along with what’s happening and make the best of it. That’s been the case for thousands of years, and it still is today. No matter what your thoughts are about the medical profession, you can’t deny that hospitals save lives and reduce suffering.
Perhaps it’s the fact that hospitals encourage people to come forward and speak openly and honestly about their ailments that makes them such a safe place to be. Or could it be the healing properties of the water that flow through the hospital’s underground system? Whichever reason you choose, it doesn’t really matter because in the end, you’re in a hospital to help someone you love.
It was in early June 2019 that I got the chance to speak with an old friend of mine from school, George Kastanas. We met back in the ‘70s when we both attended St. Paul’s College in Adelaide, and while there we formed a band together that lasted until the ‘90s. We eventually went our separate ways, but while on the phone he mentioned that he was recently admitted to the Mater Hospital for an operation, and I, of course, went straight to my good friend Peter James McCann’s brain cancer website to see if he’d heard any news about George.
McCann, who also happens to be the father of my dear friend Elle, had posted a short piece about George, including an interview with him. It was then that I found out that George had undergone a brain operation and was in the recovery phase. I was a little perplexed as to why he hadn’t told me about the surgery sooner, but I suppose he was trying to keep it a secret until he was more recovered. So there I was, in the middle of a stranger’s surgery and recovery, thinking to myself, “What am I doing here? This is all a big mistake. He’ll be better off without me.”
“Whoah, Neils. Calm down.” You might be wondering what happened at this point. It turns out that George’s surgery was a success, and he’s been released from the hospital. He’s now going to be convalescing at home for a while before he makes a full recovery. Which is why I ended up at the Mater Hospital in the first place. I felt that he needed someone there that he could trust and who knows a lot about music and the creative process. So I decided to stay at the hospital and be his friend and roommate while he recovered. Which is essentially what happened. We hung out, played music, and became reacquainted with each other’s passions and hobbies. It wasn’t exactly scientific, but it worked out well for both of us. He needed someone there to take care of him while he was recuperating, and I needed someone to help me get my head around what was happening and take care of him while he was in the hospital.
There was one complication that arose from this stay, however. As I mentioned, McCann’s website was the first place I looked, and there I found out about the AIDS Council of SA’s partnership with St. Paul’s Church in the Mater. The church was looking for people who were interested in spending a week in residence at the hospital volunteering in any way possible. As you might imagine, there were a limited number of positions available and, in the end, I was invited to put my name down for one.
Let me backtrack a little bit here. You see, as a Christian, one of the primary beliefs I hold is that we’re all in this together. We’re all part of the same human family, and we’re all in need of each other’s help and support. So when this call came from St. Paul’s Church, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. It wasn’t something I’d normally do, but at that point in my life, I had nothing to lose. I’d been homeless for a long time, and the only people I really trusted were either dead or very far away. I’d become increasingly cynical about humanity, and I suppose you could say that’s why I found myself volunteering in a hospital. It was a way of giving something back to the community while at the same time helping someone I cared about. It’s not that I was volunteering because I thought the hospital saved lives – far from it. But in that place something changed. I started to genuinely enjoy helping and being there, and before I knew it, I was looking forward to my week in the wards. I’d forgotten what that felt like. This is not to say that all the doctors and nurses were saints, but somewhere along the line, all of them started to feel like family.
As I mentioned, I’d also been feeling a little lost since my friend McCann had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I was still in awe of how he’d fought so hard and kept going, and I wanted to do whatever I could to help. So when I heard about this opportunity from St. Paul’s Church, I thought it might be a good idea to go and stay with Peter for a while and get some rest. I’m sure he’d appreciate the company, and it’d be good for me to get out of my room for a bit and do something I enjoyed. After all, there are only so many times you can help someone cook dinner for them before it starts to feel like work. So I figured why not? I needed a break from my room anyway, and it’d be good for me to do something with Peter. Besides, it’d give me a chance to get to know more of the hospital staff and better understand what was going on around here. I was, in a word, homesick. Homesickness is an oddly isolating feeling, and it hit me with full force when I was on the phone with George. So I said yes, and that was that. I didn’t hesitate to say yes when the opportunity to spend a week in residence at the hospital presented itself.
A Week at the Mater
It’s funny how things work out. About a month before I arrived, another old friend, Tim Fisher, wrote a really moving blog post about going to the Mater for the first time after his mother had passed away. It was a beautiful and haunting piece, and it really resonated with me. So when I got the chance to go there and work with George, it felt like fate. I had to go. It was what I was meant to do. What’s more, it was a way of finally giving back to the community that had given me so much when I was younger.
When I walked into the Mater for the first time, I felt like I’d finally found a home. There are so many levels to this. First of all, it’s a beautiful building. It’s old and grand, with all the hallmarks of a 100-year-old building that’s been lovingly and well-maintained. Take the lift to the second floor, and the first thing you’ll see is the magnificent atrium with its cathedral ceiling, stained-glass windows, and marble-floored space. As you’d expect, the wards are on the second floor, and you’ll find them flanked by giant windows and looking out onto the park. There are 56 wards in all, with four doctors, three registrars, and 52-beds. There’s also a lovely little café in the park for visitors to pop by and get a coffee before continuing their walk through the beautiful city. It really is a gem.
Each ward is home to between four and six residents, with two or three bedrooms with attached bathrooms and a communal living room that features a TV, microwave, coffee machine, and shared fridge. The kitchen is fully stocked with essentials, and there’s even a laundry room off-site for your convenience. For those who are medically fit enough to leave the hospital, the Church has also put together a wonderful program whereby they bring in outside volunteers to help run the place. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do all the things I’d like to do, but I’m certainly not complaining. There’s a reason why the Mater is known as the “Church’s wing” – it’s close to where I live, it’s part of my church, and it’s where all my friends are. It’s the perfect place for a week.