By Suzanne Asselin

In July 2023, we interviewed three generations of female volunteers from the same family: Erna Ludwick, her daughter Sheryl and her granddaughter Harper. Three women volunteers with hearts of gold, all highly sensitive and devoted to people with cancer and their families, whether in the Hope is Life offices at the hospital or in its Wellness Center.

This is Erna’s story.

A qualified social worker, Erna was a volunteer with Hope & Cope from its earliest years, in 1983, until 2017!

But before that, Erna went through hard times with her father, a victim of colon cancer in 1975. He had been fighting it for five years. She recalls that in those days, there was no support, either for the patient or the family.

“In 1983, I wasn’t working, so I was looking for ways to make myself useful,” she explains. “Jeannette Valmont, one of the pioneers, told me about Hope & Cope. I quickly became a volunteer. I welcomed patients and offered them tea, coffee and cookies.

“People didn’t like to say the word ‘cancer’. So I listened to those who barely dared to talk to me about what they were going through. We were a very small team, learning and experimenting together.”

Hope & Cope was already offering wigs, and soon patients could borrow books about cancer, as well as audio recordings for meditation.

The importance of volunteers for doctors and patients

Erna volunteered at the oncology clinic for about thirteen years, and was also hired by the hospital as a social worker.

“Sheila Kussner used to remind us not to overstep our role,” she says. “Doctors weren’t used to dealing with volunteers at their clinics. Sheila was a great mentor. And the doctors soon realized the importance of our role.

“Through volunteering, I’ve met people from all walks of life and from different cultures, and I’ve learned a lot from them.”

—Erna Ludwick

“I remember a very irritable patient whom the oncologist wanted to hand over to someone else. She was suffering from emotional and mental problems. I suggested to the doctor that I accompany her to their meetings. I managed to iron out the differences and made sure she continued her treatment.”

Erna also remembers a patient who absolutely refused to talk to the volunteers. “Over time, he realized that we could help him control his anxieties and meet his needs.”

From untrained to trained volunteers

Over the years, Hope & Cope has gradually developed a structure to better train volunteers. Erna actively participated in the new education committee, which organized many conferences and meetings with cancer specialists. Thanks to their collaboration, volunteers were able to understand a little more about the mechanics of cancer.

“It helped us to be better volunteers in supporting patients and their families,” she adds.

“The Hope & Cope training has enabled us to be better volunteers and to better support patients and their families.”

—Erna Ludwick

The number of groups grew. Groups for patients, their families and young adults were added in 1985. Later, support was extended to parents with cancer through the En famille program.

Erna then began facilitating family support groups. “These groups were very enriching, both for the participants and for myself. I was very impressed by their resilience and could see how beneficial these meetings were. I felt energized by their courage.”

She believes it was at this time that her daughter Sheryl discovered her interest in volunteering.

Erna also worked in palliative care. It was difficult, at times, but volunteers supported each other.

How Erna sees the future of Hope & Cope

Erna takes comfort in the future of Hope & Cope.

“Hope & Cope has been pioneering best practices for volunteers who support people living with cancer,” she says. “This is thanks to the vision and hard work of Sheila Kussner and her team.

“New generations of volunteers already have more knowledge about the different forms of cancer as well as complementary approaches available to patients and their families. This gives us the tools to support them through this journey.”

Hope & Cope is always looking for new volunteers. If you have the desire to help people with cancer, we invite you to apply today. We look forward to meeting you!

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