Giving brings joy to the giver. Ebenezer Scrooge knew it, even if it took a parade of ghosts to persuade him. Heaps of studies confirm that helping others yields far more satisfaction than accumulating wealth and possessions. If, like Scrooge, you are inclined to doubt it at first, spend some time with a woman named Berthe Nabico.
Ms. Nabico came to Canada in 1985 from Brive-la-Gaillarde in southwest France, an hour from Limoges. Her son needed treatment at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. She and her husband decided to stay. But what would she do for a living?
On the way into Toronto from the airport, she noticed several house-for-sale signs. She had next to no English. Sale means dirty in French. She concluded that Toronto homeowners were advertising for people to tidy their grubby houses. She became a cleaner.
She applied to work at a rehab hospital for children. Because of her poor English, she didn’t think the hospital would hire her, even if she does speak Spanish, Portuguese and of course French. She communicated with the interviewer partly in sign language. But when she got home the phone was ringing. She got the job. She has been there ever since, 30 years in all.
Ms. Nabico is a housekeeper in the residential wing of what is now Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, a beautiful, super-modern facility near Bayview and Eglinton avenues. Families with kids who are going through complex and often painful recoveries can stay there.
She makes their beds, straightens their rooms and listens to their stories. She sees they are well settled and cared for. She lifts their spirits with her famous smile. Everyone knows Bert-a, as people say her name in English.
A skilled seamstress, she has adapted clothes for children wearing casts, adding Velcro fasteners so that they are easier to put on and off. She has fashioned special back and leg rolls to help keep kids comfortable. When she noticed that the chairs in the kitchen dragged on the floor, she put punctured tennis balls on the legs. Now the chairs slide smoothly and silently. When she needs more tennis balls, she searches for lost ones around the tennis courts near her home.
She is always thinking of new ways to help her families feel at home. The rooms have only single beds, which means that couples have to sleep separately or push the beds together. She thinks that’s a shame and wonders whether perhaps someone might donate some money for double beds.
Those she has looked after often keep in touch. A woman who spent six years in the hospital, starting when she was an infant, remembers her as “everyone’s grandma,” always there with a warm word. One family sends her a picture of their son every year. He ended up in hospital after having a stroke at the age of 2. She called for help when he was choking on his food. His father wept from gratitude when he came back to the hospital a couple of years ago and saw her.
What really stands out about Ms. Nabico, though, is not how much good she does but how good it makes her feel. She positively beams as she talks about her work. She calls the hospital her second home. Though she has just turned 65 – and isn’t pleased about it – she finds it hard to imagine retiring.
“If I’m here, I’m happy,” she said one day this week as she tucked in sheets and checked on supplies on the 10-room floor. “I think it is worth more than a million dollars.” It’s a truth older than Scrooge.