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Rita Soares has been a dedicated UHN staff member since she was 16.
It started with a summer job as a housekeeper at The Residence – a 19-storey building on Gerrard St. that once housed UHN nursing students.
After her first summer, she was brought back again, and again. By the time she was 20 – in September 1982 – she was hired full time as the front desk receptionist of The Residence.
She worked her way up to various supervisor and manager positions.
On Feb. 28, – after more than 40 years of service with UHN – she'll retire as Toronto General Hospital's Manager, Environmental Services.
It was that first full-time job at The Residence that laid the groundwork for her passion in healthcare and support services.
As part of her role, Rita answered calls, collected rent and dealt with tenants – either nursing students or family members of patients at Toronto General Hospital (TGH) across the street. She got particularly close with one family: a man awaiting a lung transplant and his 70-year-old mother.
"I just got to know them very well," Rita says, adding that she'd help the mother with groceries, chat with her and provide encouragement.
"She would be so happy just to have that little chat everyday with me," says Rita.
Unfortunately the son died, but she kept in touch with the mother – they got together for lunch when Rita's family visited the woman's hometown.
"That stuck with me and I think that's what pushed me to achieve better results for other patients," says Rita. "It is so important to connect with patients – and my staff do this every day."
After recognizing her leadership skills, Rita was promoted to supervisor at The Residence in 1990, followed by a promotion to manager, then operations supervisor at TGH. By 2005, she was the Manager of Environmental Services (formerly Housekeeping) at TGH. She's also managed Transportation, Linen/Laundry and the Mailroom at TGH, as well as Environmental Services at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.
"They could see that I was in it not only for me, but for the patients," says Rita. "I was dedicated and I loved Toronto General Hospital and I loved to see that we were seen as the best hospital and the cleanest hospital.
"I was so proud of that – I had to keep working to maintain this."
She's received thank you notes from patients, families, staff and even received accolades during accreditation when someone commented they could "eat off the emergency room floors it was so clean."
"It kept me fired up and trying to achieve better and better results," she says.
Rita has always known – and valued – the importance of Environmental Services.
"If we don't do our job correctly, it could affect the outcome of our patients and they could die from an infection, or catching something here at the hospital," she says. "They come here to get healthy and go home and Environmental Services is a big part of that."
The job is about much more than cleaning too.
"It's disinfection and that is so important," says Rita. "There are so many different things that you need to know about disinfection and the different isolations you have.
"We cannot let our patients down."
'We can't work from home – we're in the trenches every day'
Joanne Bridle, Senior Director, Environmental Services, Transportation & Nutrition, has "mixed emotions" about Rita's retirement.
"I don't know what we'll do without her. Over the past few years, my creative attempts to convince Rita to delay her retirement have become a running joke between us," Joanne says with a laugh. "In the healthcare environmental services industry, Rita is a highly regarded leader.
"She's made a lasting, positive impact and is respected across UHN for her patient-focused approach, high standards, and responsiveness."
"After 40 years of dedicated service to UHN, Rita's retirement is well-deserved. She will be deeply missed."
Rita has passed on her passion and dedication to her team by making sure they know the crucial role they play in patient care.
"I always put them on a pedestal," she says. "I tell them: 'You're just as equally important as a nurse or a doctor.
"If you were not here to clean and disinfect the facility, we would have to shut down the place."
Working through SARS and then the COVID-19 pandemic only made this more evident.
"We can't work from home – we're in the trenches every day, we couldn't take any vacation time," says Rita. "We needed to be here. Our patients needed us."
It's been an exhausting two years – which has Rita especially looking forward to retirement – but she couldn't be more proud of her team.
"They're superheroes in my mind," she says. "What they've been through and how much work it is to do disinfect and clean a hospital – in a pandemic it's even worse with all this PPE on, you can barely breathe, it's so hot and you're moving around constantly."
In retirement, Rita is hoping to rest, relax and travel, when safe to do so.