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To focus on the needs of others brings great pleasure and relief

The positive energy Robin Downs gets from volunteering keeps her grateful for her own life.

Having spent 11 years working as a volunteer for Calvary Health Care Bethlehem, Robin Downs is very clear about who benefits most from her unpaid work. The 76-year-old, who wears bright colours and a cheery demeanour when visiting patients, tried to move away from Melbourne a few years ago. She missed her volunteer work so much that she came back.

How did you end up volunteering at Calvary Health Care Bethlehem?

I was working with homeless people and I absolutely loved that. But then I got breast cancer, and my oncologist thought I should find other volunteer work because my immunity was going to be very low. He suggested palliative care because then I’d be among people whose immunity was also compromised.

I found an advertisement in the local newspaper looking for people to volunteer at Bethlehem, so I went there for an interview.

I love the ability to help people in all situations. It might be family members who are struggling with the realisation they are losing a loved one. Or a person who has lived a full life and is moving from this life on earth to another realm – about which we know nothing.

I love the attitude of staff, their generosity of spirit and their respect for volunteers. The positive energy that I get from working here keeps me so grateful for my own life.

A couple of years ago I tried to move closer to family in Murwillumbah, in northern NSW. But I couldn’t find enough palliative care work there. I need to be hands-on, touching and listening to people and their relatives, and getting them cups of tea. I missed it so much that I decided to move back to Melbourne so I could go back to my volunteer work again.

I’ve been at Bethlehem for 11 years now. Bethlehem is the perfect place for me.

I wear my best earrings, best toenail polish and best lipstick when I go to the hospital because I think people deserve bright colours and a cheerful demeanour.

It sounds like you’ve had your own health issues to deal with?

In 2003 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which had gone to my lymph nodes. The doctors wanted to do operations and remove bosoms and I said don’t be ridiculous. It’s lymphatic so you don’t know where it’s spread to. Leave my bosoms alone thank you! I’m not going to have the stress of an operation. I learned later that they thought I only had three weeks to live. They didn’t tell me that at the time.

I don’t think doctors are always very good at predicting how long people have to live. If I’ve learned anything in palliative care, it’s that you have patients who they might say have three days and blow me down, they are there six months later.

I was very lucky; I had a wonderful oncologist. He said ‘I’m going to let you run your own race’. I started on a new chemo drug and bought myself a hat. I had hoped that my hair would grow back curly, which of course it didn’t. I was cross about that.

In 2005 my cancer came back when I was visiting my guru in India – I got secondary cancers in my backbone. I got radiation, which cleared up the tumours but unfortunately collapsed the backbone. That was another saga. I went to hospital for six months and had to learn to walk again. You find yourself looking out the window and noticing the seasons have changed, and you think ‘I have been here for a long time’.

All of these experiences have been wonderful because they give me an idea of what it is like for people who are in hospital long term.

Oh – and then I had a heart attack when I was 70. A year later I had another one. But I feel fantastic. I have four stents now and no more cancer.

What have you gained through your volunteer work?

I think it is the energy that makes it rewarding. It seems to me that when people are dying they find the best of themselves in some way. I don’t know how that happens. They will become incredibly generous – they have a generosity of spirit.

I had a girlfriend who was only 34 when she died of cancer. I was with her at her home and people were coming from all around the world to see her. People were sitting in bed with her and it was a time full of life and joy and music.

She knew she was dying. I would come over every day and then one day there was just her and me in the room. She took my hand and said “Well, I’m going now. I want you to be happy, you deserve so much to be happy.” And then she died.

I was stunned by that. Given all that she was going through, how she could be thinking of me being happy? I thought there is something going on here and so that peaked my interest.

I see moving on to death as a huge adventure because of my spiritual philosophy. If you can be with someone who is taking that journey it is such a buzz. It sounds bizarre, but I come home and I’m so hyped up that I can hardly cook my dinner. That is what it does for me.

Does it ever drain you, spending so much time with people who are dying?

My spiritual teacher in India knows what I’m doing in Melbourne and he says “Sister, you are so lucky and so privileged to have these people to do this for”. In some ways, I think volunteering is a very selfish thing. You get so much out of it. So people say ‘Aren’t you wonderful’, I say ‘No, I’m not. I do it because of what I get out of it’.

If I’m holding someone’s hand while they are dying, I am completely focussed on on that for half an hour. If I’m busy trying to paint gold nail polish on someone’s toes, to make them happy, then I’m not focused on myself. That is wonderful. You think ‘Thank God, I don’t have to worry about myself for a while’.

Every experience seems memorable. Having the opportunity to be in a quiet room with a dying patient who has no relatives is such a privilege for me.

My spiritual belief system fits perfectly with my volunteering here. It teaches me so much – to wait patiently when a person with multiple sclerosis takes a long time to tell me something; remembering not to try and fill in the spaces or speak for that person, but to let them speak for themselves. 

Painting toenails gold sounds like fun. What else offers a good time?

I also work in the day centre with people who have motor neurone disease. Some have extremely difficult situations, but regardless of all our quirky differences we do the newspaper quizzes, have choir practice, and we never stop laughing. We usually have a couple of large Greyhounds laying all over the floor along with a Kelpie and a Shih Tzu; some are trained therapy dogs and some are just visiting.

The dogs all hang out with us and we get on with our amazing day. To ever have to give that time up, for me, is a nightmare.

What other adventures do you have planned, Robin?

One thing I’ve always wanted to do is be part of the Paralympic support team. I just find the energy that a lot of people with disabilities have is phenomenal. It is great.

A few months ago I came back from Dubai where I was pushing a wheelchair for a young lady who is a Paralympian and an ambassador for multiple sclerosis. She is a bench press athlete and such an interesting person. I met her at Bethlehem when she came in to talk to us about the emotional aspects of having MS.

Anyway, I took her over to Dubai, or she took me is probably a better way of putting it. I was there for 10 days and everyone was so kind and welcoming. I had the best time.

I’m hoping I might get to walk around the oval with the wheelchairs at next year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. I can’t wait to do that.


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