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Volunteer uplifts patients, one song at a time

Toronto, May 4, 2018

By James Wysotski

Volunteer George Linton lifts spirits by playing his guitar for MSICU patient Abdul Ahmed and his wife Bibi
Volunteer George Linton lifts spirits by playing his guitar for MSICU patient Abdul Ahmed and his wife Bibi. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

When George Linton walks into a room, he makes people feel better.

He doesn’t carry a stethoscope or deliver a meal. Instead, the 92-year-old volunteer strums an acoustic guitar that appears to be almost as old as him.

With a smile as bright as the red tie tucked into his trousers, he poked his head into a room of the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit (MSICU) and respectfully asked a patient, “Would you like to hear a tune? Where are you from?”

Linton is all about making quick connections with patients. He likes to pick songs that match their heritage.

This time, he got a request.

   
Did you know?
Our health network with Providence Healthcare and St. Joseph’s Health Centre had 1,436 volunteers in 2017. Together, their 139,290 volunteer hours helped make a difference in countless patients’ lives. Learn about the many benefits of volunteering and how you can help: stmichaelshospital.com/volunteer.

"Do you know 'On top of old smoky' or 'You are my sunshine?" asked Abdul Ahmed, a patient. "Those are songs I used to sing."

Within seconds, Linton’s fingers strummed familiar chords.

His voice followed. He didn’t need to sing loudly to make everyone nearby stop and listen.

"We love George,” said Rose Piacentino, a social worker in the MSICU. “He's our troubadour. He raises the patients’ spirits... and ours. He brings a sense of calmness. He's so committed.”

Linton, a former journalist at the Globe and Mail, has been volunteering at hospitals since 1987, a year after he retired. His 31 years of dedication include about 15 at St. Michael’s. He also performs at St. Joseph's Health Centre, Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Mount Sinai Hospital and Toronto Western Hospital. Each month, he visits all five hospitals at least once, spending most of his time in the ICUs with people at their most difficult times.

Volunteer George Linton
Volunteer George Linton. (Photo by Katie Cooper)

“There's something about being confined to a bed that makes you appreciate music more than you normally would,” he said. He firmly believes that music is therapy. “Patients get a surge of pleasure when they hear a song from their past.”

Linton likes to be prepared for any request. The songbook in his mind dates back to the 1930s with such classics as “Nobody's darling but mine." If he knows the requested song, he’ll play it. If not, it becomes that night’s homework so that he’ll be ready next time. He said he cannot guess how many songs he knows, because he’s never stopped learning new ones since he first picked up at guitar at age 10.

"I like to play songs that patients grew up with," said Linton. “Every song I've ever learned could be useful and help a patient.”

Getting paid to perform stopped mattering many years ago, he said. Now, the reward is seeing and hearing peoples’ reactions.

   
Highlights from George Linton’s collection of inspiring patient and clinician comments:
  • “You came at just the right time. Things were so heavy before you arrived.”
  • “I could fall asleep now. I'm all relaxed.”
  • “You make a big difference in people's lives.”
  • “I enjoyed every second of it."
  • "Thanks for that song. It brought my appetite back."
  • “It sure is nice to have somebody come in and play music.”
  • “You made my day.”
  • “Don't ever stop what you're doing.”

“It gives me pleasure to see people enjoying my music,” said Linton.

Ever the journalist, he wrote down the most moving remarks he’s received. It’s an ever-growing wad of paper scraps with short quotations that encapsulate many years of treasured memories as a volunteer. Reading them all aloud is a rarity, Linton said, but this time it produced as many smiles from him as the number his music has inspired from others.

He said all of the positive remarks inspire him to keep volunteering. His goal now is to find others who will carry on his tradition.

"The main thing for me is to pass it on," said Linton. “Sometimes at subway stations, I tell musicians they’re good and give them a sheet of paper with a note that encourages them to go to hospitals and share their talents."

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in more than 29 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the Hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael’s Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.


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