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When a child's greatest wish in the Northern Ireland Hospice is a simple hug, volunteer Sam has open arms

20 April 2017

Belfast pensioner Sam says working in the hospice has made his life complete

When a little girl at the Children’s Hospice told Santa all she wanted for Christmas was a hug, pensioner Sam McAteer had to take a moment to compose himself.

Disguised by the white beard and red suit he’d put on, he swallowed back tears, pulled the youngster to his chest and gently hugged her.

And when she told her mum she’d had a hug from the ‘real Santa’ Sam knew that the decision volunteer at the hospice was the best he’d made in his 70 years.

Four years on, Sam and his wife Margaret, from Ballygomartin, are still spending all the time they can helping others at the hospice, patiently waiting for the new adult facility to be completed in November. Sam dedicates time to patients in the hospice and Margaret works in the shop on Belfast's Shankill Road.

Sam said: “I always thought I really appreciated my life and everyone in it but when I stepped into the Hospice, I knew I needed to have another think about it. We’ve so much to be grateful for, even on our most difficult days.

“When you ask a child what she wants for Christmas and she tells you she just wants a hug, it puts everything, absolutely everything into perspective.

“And that’s exactly what happened to me. I’d been volunteering with the St John’s Ambulance for 25 years but I wanted to do something different and the hospice seemed like a good idea.

“I applied and got through the process and started visiting. I was in the original unit which meant I was on hand for a chat, to make a cup of tea or help take someone for a wee walk, all the things most people take for granted.

“I was a bit nervous when I stepped through the doors because I thought it might be gloomy and sad, and although some people were in respite care, others were obviously nearing the end of their life and that’s a time when words and actions can mean nothing or absolutely everything.

“I discovered that I just needed to be myself - that was the only qualification I really needed. The amazing thing about volunteering in a place which really needs people, is that we’re there to make other people’s lives a little better, but the upshot is that it makes your own life a whole lot better too.

"So I'm happy to be raising awareness and funds for the hospice because it's there for everyone."

Sam, 74, a retired plumber, started his volunteering by taking ice creams to the six people who were being cared for in the hospice at the time.

He said: “I just felt they might like a wee treat and I came over with six cones of vanilla ice cream, then I started buying tubs of ice cream but one of the ladies was diabetic and couldn’t have any.

“So I decided to make her a little name plaque. I got a small silver frame and wrote her name in calligraphy on card and decorated it with dried flowers.

“She just loved it. Then someone else wanted one, and another and another. I must have made 600 by now and I’m making more and more. My only issue is finding the right sized frames, a three inch by two inch frame in a silver colour. They look lovely and for the people who die, they’re also a little something their family can treasure.

“I made one for a young woman who was visiting her mum who was a patient in Room 6 as it was then, and they were both called Elizabeth. So I made one for each of them and they were delighted. Three days later when I went to see them, the mother had passed away. The little name plaque was taken home and will be always be a reminder of this lovely lady.

“When life is ending and times are hard, those moments are very special and it has been an absolute honour to be part of a team that’s bringing comfort, care and love to people.

“You put in 100% and get back 200%. There’s something extraordinary about people who are dying who feel able to give you a little of their time, who want you to be a little part of their life.

“I have grown very attached to some of the people who have been patients at the Hospice. Some have been there for weeks and months, other for just a few hours.

“And for anyone who says they would be afraid to visit a hospice or the children's hospice because they're sad places, I can tell you they're not.

“Having a little role in the hospice has been life changing for me and for my wife, Margaret, and we’ll continue on as long as we can".