“The ones that upset us the most are the young mothers who put off their treatment until they have had their babies,” says Gail Avis of the indelible impression some patients have made in the 23 years she has volunteered at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital’s wig library. “Then they come in with a tiny baby and they have to have their head shaved. That’s something you don’t forget.”
Since 1975, volunteers have powered the library, which offers patients undergoing chemotherapy the choice of more than 2500 wigs and head coverings at reduced prices. Gail, a grandmother from the beachside suburb of Coogee, has helped thousands of people face a potentially life-threatening diagnosis with dignity and support at a crucial moment.
“You'll have someone walk in who’s just been told they have cancer and they are going to lose their hair. Nobody tells them how it’s going to happen or when it’s going to happen or what to do about it as it starts to fall out,” she says. “We’re not qualified counsellors but we've got common sense. We give [them] all the different ways to cope with [hair loss] and that makes them feel better. They go out with a smile on their face.”
Unquestionably, it’s an emotionally challenging role. “There are a lot of people who could not work in the wig library,” says Gail. “It’s no good if you are going to cry every time someone else cries and we do get a lot of crying. We’ll give them a hug and a tissue and let them cry and give them a drink of water and then we put some silly wig on them that makes them look ridiculous and then they laugh.
“We walk out the door and feel we have helped somebody in some way to feel better about themselves.”
Gail has a powerful family legacy of compassion and grace towards those suffering. “My mother inspired me [to volunteer],” she says. Her mother, Vi Robbins, had dedicated her time to helping Alcoholics Anonymous, migrant families and local schools for decades. When Gail once mentioned that the Prince of Wales Hospital needed more volunteers, Vi immediately and without reservation put her hand up to help – she was 99 years old at the time. For years, Vi did clerical work at the hospital and, just before her 108th birthday, took her place in the Guinness World Recordsas the world’s oldest active volunteer.
“Her attitude was, ‘There is always someone worse off then you, go out and find them and help them,’” says Gail. “I feel that everyone we send out the door at the wig library, we have helped somehow.”