People living with intellectual disabilities or autism take on tasks that keep the hospital running
Meet the new work crew at the Jewish General Hospital that’s improving the lives of staff and patients—one hospital gown, wheelchair and cardboard box at a time.
Every day, these team members fan out across the hospital to tackle a range of useful tasks: They unknot staff gowns, flatten cardboard boxes for recycling and retrieve errant wheelchairs. Their contributions help keep a major hospital running—and the work is rewarding for them, too.
“It makes me feel like I’m doing something for the community,” says Danny Hochstadter. “And when I’m here, it feels like family.”
Mr. Hochstadter and his workmates live on the autism spectrum or with intellectual disabilities, and they’re on the job thanks to a partnership between Miriam Home and the JGH, both member facilities of CIUSSS West-Central Montreal.
In only one year, this partnership has proved beneficial for all.
It got underway in the fall of 2021 with a pressing task: Thousands of yellow isolation gowns worn by nurses and other healthcare staff during the pandemic were waiting to be put back into circulation. The gowns were perfectly functional, but knots around the neck prevented them from being re-used, even after being laundered.
Special Care Counsellor Jason Séguin from Miriam Home arrived at the JGH one day in October to survey the task, and was taken aback: A dozen large bins in the Pavilion G atrium were overflowing with mountains of yellow gowns.
“How are we going to make a dent in this?” Mr. Séguin asked himself.
But the Miriam Home participants—two originally, now five—got to work. Using their fingers or sets of tweezers purchased by Mr. Séguin, they diligently undid thousands upon thousands of knots around the necks, permitting the protective gear to be put back into service.
“They played a pivotal role,” says David Diachidos, JGH Chief of Laundry and Linen Services, who helped set up the arrangement. He explains that between 10,000 and 15,000 isolation gowns were being laundered each day during the pandemic, but they couldn’t be re-used if they were knotted around the neck, due to infection-control measures to prevent contact between the jacket and the face.
Enter the Miriam Home team.
“They’ve done a great job,” says Mr. Diachidos. “Laundry Services and the hospital have gained, and it’s given us a chance to create opportunities for them. Everyone comes out ahead.”
The Miriam Home participants, who range in age from 23 to 56, have since expanded their tasks to include retrieving wheelchairs and returning them to the JGH main entrance, as well as using boxcutters to flatten cardboard boxes collected from various departments. And they still pick up fresh supplies of knotted gowns in a specially designated bin in the Intensive Care Unit.
“We feel like we’re contributing to the quality of care of the hospital, while supporting recycling and sustainability at the same time,” says Mr. Séguin, who oversees the Miriam Home team.
The program has given participants an opportunity to develop work and social skills such as punctuality and collaboration, while creating a sense of belonging in a large and dynamic workplace. They’re often greeted by security guards and other staff as they move around the hospital.
“I’ve seen their level of pride and confidence increase over time,” Mr. Séguin says. “They’ve learned to navigate through the hospital and prove to themselves that they can find their way in a large environment.”
Chantal Forget, Program Manager for the Community and Work Integration Program at Miriam Home, says the arrangement also benefits hospital staff by showing them that peoplewho live with disabilities can be more than patients or clients—they can be allies and co-workers, too.
“To have them as colleagues, as equals, sensitizes our employees,” she says. “It forces them to accept difference within their workplace. So it’s a learning experience for both sides.”
While three Miriam Home clients work autonomously at the JGH in a separate program, this is the first fully supervised work unit to operate within the hospital. These partnerships demonstrate that two facilities within a single CIUSSS can gain from helping each other. “We knew there was great potential for everybody involved,” says Miria De Muri, a Specialist in Clinical Activities at Miriam Home. “After all, we’re one CIUSSS, one family. It’s win-win for everyone.”