Community Papers

Carollers make spirits bright for Lions Gate Hospital shut-ins

Lions Gate Hospital employees, from left, Rosemary Hill, Rev. Andres Rebane and Pat MacDonald spend every Christmas Eve singing to patients.  - Rob Newell photo
Lions Gate Hospital employees, from left, Rosemary Hill, Rev. Andres Rebane and Pat MacDonald spend every Christmas Eve singing to patients.
— image credit: Rob Newell photo

Rosemary Hill has orchestrated Christmas carolling on Christmas Eve at Lions Gate Hospital for the past couple of decades

A group of 30 unrehearsed singers sounds like a choir of angels to someone confined to a hospital bed on Christmas Eve.

Rosemary Hill helms this makeshift ensemble comprised of Lions Gate Hospital employees and patients’ families.
Carolling is a LGH holiday tradition that was conceived 30-some-odd Christmases ago by palliative nurse Muriel Wessel.

“She wanted to bring some joy and recognize the patients who couldn’t be with their families, and offer them a piece of Christmas,” recalls Hill while bustling around the hospital on Monday.

On top of her busy schedule as an ostomy and wound nurse clinician, Hill makes time every holiday season to organize the carolling. For this life-long warbler, who today is aptly wearing a red sweater, it’s Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” that keeps her in the Christmas spirit.

Every Christmas Eve, the carollers arrive at the hospital — some donning Santa hats, others decked out in festive attire. The only warm-up is a festive lesson in germ spreading and the importance of hand sanitizer.

Hill never knows from one year to the next who is going to show up and with what instrument. Most Christmas Eves they can count on Mike Tanner and his guitar. The accomplished musician heard about the festive philanthropic gig years ago from his mother who is a palliative volunteer at LGH.

“He has a wonderful connection with the patients,” says Hill.

Soon the choir migrates to the highest point in the hospital, the palliative floor. And the singing begins. A stirring rendition of “Silent Night” comforts the palliative patients during what is seemingly their last Christmas.

Slowly, as the train of carollers move on, the harmony fades into silence.

Carrying blue Duo-Tangs filled with Christmas song lyrics, they continue to sing their way through the middle floors —which house the surgical and maternity wards —  eventually winding up at the bottom in the chaotic emergency room.

Hill says the singing has a calming effect on those people that didn’t plan to spend their holiday at the hospital.

With this large group snaking through the narrow hospital hallways, sometimes it’s hard to keep everyone on the same page, says Hill with a smile.

“But we do get some pretty good harmony going,” she adds.

The singers will routinely pause and encircle around the doorway of a four-bed hospital room. Earlier in the day, Hill will have checked in with the patients on each ward to make sure everyone is comfortable with the festive company.

The carollers rarely get turned away. Hill offers a sobering reminder that there isn’t always family present at every patients’ bedside.

“They are thankful that people would opt to be in a place on Christmas Eve where there are sick people, and sing to them,” says Hill.  “And I believe it offers them hope, I really do.”

On one occasion Hill remembers how the singing comforted a spouse standing by the bedside of a dying loved one.

And while every song is well-received, “Joy to the World” is a perennial favourite of the patients. Often the singers will take requests.

For the LGH staff who participate in the carolling, it’s a special chance for them to step away from the clinical side of their job and offer some spiritual healing.

LGH oncology nurse clinician Pat MacDonald, a patient herself a couple Christmases ago, was awakened by the singing she heard while lying in her hospital bed. Clutching her IV pole she sauntered alongside the train of carollers, singing all the way.

“It was just fantastic,” says MacDonald of that memory.

LGH chaplain Rev. Andres Rebane explains how some patients become tearful when they hear the music echoing through the halls.

“It’s not a bad thing that they are overcome,” says Rebane. “Music is quite healing. It brings into your memory the good things about Christmas and family.”

For Rebane, Christmas carolling conjures up bittersweet memories from his youth. He grew up in Estonia in the 1970s, while it was still under Soviet occupation. Normally it would snow, which Rebane found comforting because Christmas was not to be celebrated in public at that time.

“You weren’t even allowed to put out a Christmas trees until after the 25th,” recalls Rebane.

So his family would hunker down in their home for some clandestine carolling which brightened their spirits.

“It was just this kind of sacred, happy, good feeling,” says Rebane.

After about an hour and 20 minutes, the LGH carollers wrap up their performance. The afternoon usually wraps up with everyone enjoying a mandarin orange before going on their way to see their families.

Hill leaves with a greater appreciation for life and its fragile nature.

“I’m grateful that I can walk out the hospital doors feeling well and healthy,” says Hill.

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