Friend, Mother, Icon

By Julie Middleton

Greying white walls loom over the large corridors of floor 5A. The dim fluorescent lights buzz mutedly overhead and the elevator clunks to a halt at the floor above. All else is silent, save for one sound.

“When Phyllis laughs you can hear it all over the floor,” says Maurice Caron, a patient of St. Vincent Hospital for 12 years. He smiles as he describes his favourite nurse.

On Sept. 28, Phyllis Mayers will say farewell to her nursing days at the Centretown chronic care hospital. For 42 years Mayers has walked its halls as a registered nurse, a friend, a “mother” and an “icon”.

Mayers immigrated from Barbados in 1960 and, apart from completing her registered nursing diploma in England, has been at St. Vincent ever since. In addition to her work at the hospital, Mayers has pioneered and volunteered in many community programs in the Ottawa area.

Her friends and colleagues at St. Vincent know her as a source of stability, generosity and understanding. Each one will remember her help during their first days on her floor, her positivity in times of stress, her Christmas parties every year, and their birthdays she never forgot.

After 10 years of working alongside Mayers, Rose-Marie Lathan knows when she’ll miss her most.

“Saturday mornings…we’re understaffed, everyone’s running around trying to get organized, and there’s Phyllis in the middle of it all saying ‘Guys, let’s stay cool,’ ” she says.

Ghislaine Dorsainvil, after 18 years of working with Mayers, is still thankful for her kindness in the beginning.

“Most importantly, she is very helpful. She helps especially when you don’t speak English like me. She goes slowly, and says ‘Take it easy,’ ” she says.

“It takes a special person to last this long in this profession and still stick it out,” says Michelle Bain. She has worked with Mayers just over a year and understands the demands of working as a nurse in long-term care.

“Unlike a regular hospital, most of our patients are here for life and need help from head to toe. So, you can get very emotionally involved with patients. Some don’t have families…we’re it,” she says.

At her townhouse in Orleans Mayers throws her head back in vibrant laughter, relishing the memories of her years at St. Vincent.

“In order to enjoy your job, you have to put a little bit of fun in it. If you’re happy with the people you work with, you’re happy. If not, the job becomes very hard,” she says.

Surrounding her from the floor to the ceiling, are huge framed pictures of her daughter, seven brothers and sisters, mother and father.

Photos of her two grandsons, whom she loves to brag about, overflow unframed onto ledges and tables.

In the entranceway, dozens of framed awards and certificates hang proudly among newspaper clippings and red shining ribbons. Included in the collection are letters of appreciation for her volunteer work with various organizations including, UNICEF, the Gloucester Arts Council and Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.

Other frames hold awards such as the 1998 Ontario Medal for Good Citizenship and the 2001 International Year of the Volunteer award.

On the table, awaiting wall space, is a letter announcing her latest award, the Jubilee Queen Elizabeth the Second Medal.

She is due to receive it Oct. 17. Despite a lengthy career in nursing and a history of community work, Mayers says she never could have predicted her life when she arrived at age 18.

“I remember my first patient in training. I undressed [ a colostomy] patient and I couldn’t do it. It was the first time I’d ever seen anything like that. I ran away and [the teacher] ran behind me, grabbed my shirt, and said ‘You come back here.’ I’ve been there ever since,” she recalls.

Although Mayers admits her life sometimes seemed overwhelming, she says her faith brought her strength.

“You can’t do it by yourself…I didn’t do it by myself. They do the work,” she says, motioning to the crucifixes and paintings of

the Madonna on her wall. “I’m just the hands.”

She contributes her dedication to her late father, the head of a psychiatric hospital in Barbados and “a very hard worker.”

“When we were younger, we never had fancy clothes but we always had education. He said an education was the most important thing. No one can ever take that away from you.”

In his St. Vincent room, Maurice Caron recounts his favourite memory of Mayers. “I had bought her a birthday card, but it was her day off. So one of the other nurses drove me to her house. When we got there, Phyllis was so surprised she ran outside and yelled ‘Maurice’ and kissed me. She had tears on her cheeks.

“I will miss her very much.”

However, Mayer’s daughter, Karen Mayers, says she knows there’s no reason to miss her yet.

“She’ll continue doing her work in the community, and she’ll definitely be back to St. Vincent. My mom has never been able to sit still, and she won’t start now.”