What’s life without hope? — Georgette Helou
In just five minutes, Georgette Helou has already cracked three jokes. Howling with laughter, the 87-year-old firecracker has a fervor for life that's infectious. Her cheeks blush, her eyes bright, her outlook bullish, the breast-cancer survivor has become a beacon of hope at St. Michael's. “I'm a joker,” she says, “I want to make people laugh. I want to make people happy!”
Her green vest is emblazoned with an assortment of honorary pins recognizing more than two decades of volunteerism, including a customized Trillium Award for her many years of community service. “Since I was young, I dreamt of working in a hospital to help patients,” says Georgette. “I'm a survivor. I wanted to show patients that they can survive, too.”
When Georgette was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 30 years ago, she turned to St. Michael's for care. She remembers that after her first surgery on April 15, she was placed in bed 13 on the fifth floor of the hospital. For her second surgery, Dr. Colapinto said her appointment was to be on May 13. Georgette yelled, “Over my dead body!” He stressed the severity of the situation and urged her to keep the appointment. “I went home and called my sister in Ireland, who's even more superstitious than I am. She said, 'Lucky you! May 13, 1987, is the 70th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady Fatima!' I thought, 'Hallelujah, the whole world will pray for me!'” she remembers, laughing.
Despite her illness, she kept her job at the bank, where she spent 18 and a half years working. “I had to work. I had to keep doing something at all times – even now,” says Georgette, who spends her spare time designing and selling jewelry – often to help fundraise for her local church.
In addition to the staff at St. Michael's, Georgette credits her faith for helping her overcome cancer. “I have a prayer that I invented. When I first came to this hospital, I went to the chapel and said, 'Lord, give me the courage to always stand up for what is right; to accept whatever you give me with grace and humour; I want to die laughing. Help me put a smile on people's faces and, if possible, help me feed a poor person today.'”
It was her desire to help the poor and underprivileged of Toronto's inner city that propelled her to volunteer at St. Michael's in 1995. “I'm very proud of St. Michael's and the way they treat people,” says Georgette, who spent nearly 15 years in the Medical Daycare Unit, which provides outpatient cancer care to about 600 patients every month. In an effort to inspire others, she speaks candidly about her battle with breast cancer. “If I didn't have hope, I wouldn't have survived.”
In her current role as a patient guide, she ensures that everyone who walks through St. Michael's doors is met with a smile. “I guide them, I make them laugh, I tell them jokes, I take them where they need to be,” she says. “I love it because I love making people laugh.”
She also gets a thrill out of telling patients her age. “They never believe me!” Her secret to staying so young? “Great genes! I also eat two pieces of dark chocolate in the morning, two pieces at noon and two pieces at night. My dinners are a delightful mix of dried and fresh fruits with cheese and a handful of all kinds of unsalted nuts.”
Georgette's legacy will not only live on in the countless lives she's touched as a volunteer, but also in the gifts she plans to leave behind – including a bequest to St. Michael's in her will. “It's good to help others,” she says. “I love giving back to St. Mike's because I feel it is part of my family. I'm proud to belong to this wonderful family of humanistic, kind, generous and most dedicated doctors, nurses and specialists. Every single employee and volunteer, from the cleaning staff to the top executives, share the same mission and values of treating others with respect, compassion and dignity.”