Tales from a hospital tea lady: ‘I memorise their names and how they take their tea’
This tea lady has touched the hearts of so many patients in Cork University Hospital’s oncology department
Pictured Majella Chisholm, who operates a voluntary tea and coffee station at the oncology department of Cork University Hospital. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Between the sound of the kettle boiling, the hot water being poured and the spoon clinking, there is laughter.
In a reception area consumed with so much pain, the tea and coffee hatch at Cork University Hospital’s oncology department is an unusual place for such a dispersal of light and positivity.
“Thanks for the whiskey, Majella,” jokes one patient winking devilishly as he places his empty mug back on the hatch counter. Laughter erupts around the room. A few newcomers look shocked.
Majella Chisholm isn’t your average tea lady. Sure, she can make a mean brew but it’s her soft and caring touch which means her hatch is a hive of activity.
Patients, some weary, some defiant, arrive each day for their radiation or chemotherapy treatments and make their way to her counter. Some are eager to chat while others just want a reassuring word.
“I lost both my parents to cancer. Unfortunately, I know all about it,” the tea lady explains as she arranges her biscuits and yoghurts at the start of her shift.
The hatch is a volunteer initiative, funded by donations, and there’s no charge for customers. Majella Chisholm has been part of the housekeeping team here for years and this is just one of her daily tasks.
But it’s the one most patients now know her best for. Between 10:30am and noon each weekday, she rolls up the shutter and serves tea and positivity.
“Ah, its the smile,” Mike Hackett explains. The author, and occasional fisherman, from Youghal, has been coming here for nine-years to receive treatment for an Aplastic anaemia blood disorder.
“Smiling is just so important. Majella always has it along with that giddiness which picks patients up. And when patients see someone smiling they find that they can smile themselves.”
But this tea lady knows that for many, positive thoughts are hard to find. Some are still reeling from their diagnosis. She tells me its especially difficult to see young battling adults in for treatment.
“During the school holidays those patients often have to bring their children in with them. Seeing them in that context is especially heart-breaking.”
She continues: “Some people want to chat, others don’t, so you have to gauge it. You’d know the people who are terrified. Even if they’re trying to conceal it you can spot it. When people come in first I introduce myself quietly. I memorise their name and how they take their tea or coffee. If they take milk or sugar. If they like it strong or weak . . . that kind of thing. By the end of the first week of treatment I generally find that they’re coming over and talking about their personal life.”
As a rule, she doesn’t ask the patients about their diagnosis or treatment. But if they want to tell her she listens.
Sure, it’s all a bit of craic. Laughter and positivity are important for those going through difficult treatments
“Its amazing what people tell you. Some are open as a book and will tell you about their fears, concerns and hopes, all about their families and even about their farms at home or the state of their local roads. Maybe they find it easier talking to a stranger. For some the cup of tea or coffee means so much. Many are even sad when their treatment ends. Its sounds crazy, you’d think they should be jumping for joy, but here they meet others in the same predicament and we try to look after them. Often, you’ll have men, especially, who live on their own in rural areas of Cork and Kerry and they may not see someone from one end of the week to the next. It’s very sad really.”
A rush to the hatch counter tells us that the bus from Kerry has pulled up outside.
The Kerry Cancer Support Group run a free daily bus service bringing patients from around the Kingdom to CUH for their cancer treatment.
“They’re a great bunch and it’s an amazing service,” says Chisholm. “So many characters. Many of them have been on the road for hours before they get here at all and then they face the same long road home. And they have to do that day after day.”
Her son Alan (26) is dating a girl called Gina from Millstreet, not far from the Cork-Kerry border, and the patients on the bus sense a defection.
“We’ll all be in Killarney for the big day soon,” jokes one.
“Sure, it’s all a bit of craic,” Majella laughs through the hatch. “Laughter and positivity are important for those going through these very difficult treatments. Sure, anyway I can help I will.”
The youngest of three sisters, she grew up in nearby Gurranabraher and looked after both of her parents in their latter years with the help of husband Raymond, a porter in the X-Ray department at CUH.
He pops his head around the corner: “Oh sorry to interrupt, I’ll be off now because this is her moment in the sun,” he says smiling at his wife.
Modest and not naturally comfortable with the praise, this tea lady has touched the hearts of so many patients receiving treatment.
“I’m forever getting cards and gifts from people saying thank you but sure I don’t expect that at all. Recently a woman came all the way from Tralee just three weeks after her husband passed away. She just wanted to pass on her gratitude. He’d often come for the tea and the chat during his treatment. A lovely man.”
And there are cuddles too.
“Ah you’d often go around the counter and give a hug. Especially if someone was finishing their treatment or was upset. You have to be careful too not to overstep the mark, if a nurse is needed I’ll call for someone,” she says.
With nearly two decades experience of working in the oncology department Majella Chisholm has seen it all.
“It is what it is. I’ve lost a lot of friends to cancer. Even over the last year the hospital has lost staff members, but look, I meet people who came in here, had their treatment and now they’re better than myself, bouncing around the place. There are so many positive stories. There’s always hope. Always.”