The Coin Toss

By Kevin McKay

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Many people look forward to their retirement years so they can sit back, relax and enjoy their time of leisure in peace and contentment. Not Dora Jellema. After retiring from nearly 30 years as a busy physiotherapist at Royal Columbian Hospital, Dora had other plans. 

Ironically, she started her volunteer career at the very hospital she worked at for close to three decades. She claims this came about because the Columbian has an entrance where the old emergency ward had been. 

“My former boss retired the year before me and he stayed involved,” says Dora. “When I retired, he thought I might enjoy volunteering in the small gift shop and helping to direct visitors at this satellite entrance. It was quieter than the regular gift shop and became a place where people would stop to chat. I have been there since 1989.”

The gift shop is not the only place Dora has volunteered at the hospital. She is now in the new Resource Centre, which offers health information along with material available on the Internet. In November, she escorted a group of 10 high school students on a tour through the hospital as part of Take-Your-Kids-to-Work day.

A job vacancy at the Royal Columbian Hospital was what brought Dora to British Columbia in the first place. She had been working in Hamilton, Ontario when she applied for an opening as a physiotherapist at the RCH. She landed the job and started work there in 1960 at the tail end of a polio epidemic. At the time, she was the only physio working in the wards. Because of the polio, she spent a lot of time working in the isolation ward until those patients were transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. 

“The doctors were very insistent that if these people were going to get well, they needed to listen to their physio, so that made me feel very good,” recalls Dora.

While helping a host of patients over the years, Dora watched the department grow to a staff of 16 physiotherapists by the time she retired. During the early years, the work quickly started to get more complicated.

“After the freeway opened with close access to RCH, we started to see more trauma cases with spinal injuries, burns and amputees before special care units for them were developed in Vancouver,” says Dora. “We had to treat them until they could either move on to GF Strong for rehabilitation or be discharged home. We had a feeling of really making a difference and contributing to the quality of their lives.”

Dora treated Rick Hansen for a short time, after his spinal injury brought him to RCH. He became a paraplegic from a traffic accident, on the way home from a fishing trip in the B.C. Interior. She remembers him as an angry, frightened teenager whose athleticism and strong character pulled him through to the role model he is today. But there was a long process to go through first at RCH, then on to GF Strong Rehab Centre.

In time, Dora became the head of the physiotherapy department and, eventually, she was asked to open a temporary Extended Care Unit for patients who were waiting for placement in care homes. Her team aimed to improve the mobility of these people and it proved very successful, as well as rewarding. 

Dora remembers a stroke victim, who, as a young man, had been in the Polish cavalry. One day, his neighbour brought in a suitcase full of newspaper clippings, all about the story of his life.

“There was this great picture of him on horseback holding his sword up,” Dora recalls. “We put it on the wall beside his bed to show the staff what his life had been. This became our policy, to put up a photo representative of the patients life so staff would know these people had a history. They were not just the frail seniors before them. It helped us all to improve our interaction with them and their families."

Part of the therapy included preparing one meal a week together. Patients enjoyed the slow process: contributing to their own daily life instead of being passive in their care.

But more than the programs or ideas, what stays with Dora are the people.

“There was this woman with totally paralyzed arms from polio who did everything by mouth, writing, painting and so on,” says Dora. “Over years of doing this, she developed neck strain, which I was treating. She was such an outstanding character that when her husband showed up to take her home, he asked for his wife the artist, not his wife the polio victim. This is what inspired me. Their spirit shines through overcoming all kinds of adversity.”

Born and raised in Yorkshire, England to two teachers, she credits them for instilling her interest in the outside world because of their inquisitive minds. During summer vacations, the family would travel all over the United Kingdom, visiting museums and historic castles.

Her parents expected her to become a teacher, but her brother’s girlfriend, a physiotherapist, helped steer her career choice and Dora moved to London to train. 

“What I discovered is that doing physio is teaching after all,” says Dora. “You teach people exercises and about ways to overcome their disabilities.”

Once she was established in her career, Dora and a friend sought adventure. They noticed both Canada and Australia advertised for healthcare workers and decided to give it a try. Unable to decide, they tossed a coin and wound up on a ship bound for Montreal – and a new life in Canada.

Shortly after retirement, Dora took out a membership at Dogwood Pavilion in Coquitlam. Once there for a year, she saw how vital volunteers were to senior centres and signed up to be a hostess at the front desk, greeting people and helping at events, something she still enjoys twice a month after nearly 20 years.

In 1994, Jill Rowledge, then director at Dogwood, called a meeting to explore ways to make the centre more welcoming to new Canadians. Dora was at that initial meeting and has been secretary of the multicultural group ever since. “We meet monthly and the goal is to help everyone accept each other and their different cultures. We go on outings and have one big event each year with food and entertainment from around the world. Some come to improve their English and many of those people wind up volunteering at the centre. We have language buddies to speak with them.”

One of the great successes of this multicultural committee is the Living in Harmony article that Dora writes for the newsletter six times each year. In the column, she highlights points of interest and items to illuminate aspects of different cultures.

In addition, she also serves as a peer counsellor to fellow seniors who need to talk.

“One of the highs of my life now is volunteering as a peer counsellor and helping other people cope,” says Dora.

Dora's life in Canada, along with her husband Theo and their two sons began as a game of chance. She says, “I was glad the flipped coin brought me [here] because Canada has given me a good life, and it's good to be able to give something in return during my retirement.”





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