For thousands of patients and visitors, the royal treatment at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre began the moment they met Barb Tiano at the main lobby information desk.
Since 1975, Barb has been the mainstay in this key role, greeting and helping patients as they begin and continue along their cancer journey. It's the only job she's ever had – with brief leaves to have three sons – and one that she's loved with all her heart, even on the most difficult days.
And now, 42-plus years later, Barb is retiring Nov. 30.
"I just like people, and to be able to help them when they're anxious and scared, or feeling worn out and sick has kept me going," Barb says. "What you give you get back, and I've made some wonderful connections here over the years."
She recalls a patient who unfailingly waited for her at the desk day after day to say goodbye following his rigorous course of treatment. He spoke no English but that didn't stop Barb from connecting with him through smiles and gestures. A few months later, a woman came by and asked for the "Lady at the Desk." She handed Barb a single red rose and said she was the wife of that patient, and the flower was from her husband's funeral bouquet to thank her.
"There have been so many moments like this and much laughter as well as many tears over the years," Barb says. Not to mention a steady stream of gifts from grateful recipients of the famous, warm-hearted "Tiano TLC" on site – home baking, chocolates, ornaments, French fries, funny socks, inspirational sayings, a teapot, a ceramic angel, the odd bottle of wine, even a Santa toilet seat cover.
Barb is renowned for her sense of humour and holiday-themed sweaters (25 different ones in December), flashy earrings and accessories starting on Valentine's Day and continuing on every occasion the rest of the year. She adores Christmas and is everyone's favourite Elf accompanying Santa at annual holiday parties for children at the cancer centre.
"I like to have fun, break the ice and get people laughing despite why they're here," Barb says. She downplays how hectic the info desk can be, simultaneously juggling phone calls, patient and visitor requests, pick-ups and deliveries, complaints, lobby medical emergencies, people in the wrong hospital, and so on.
No matter what, Barb is the picture of calm and has keen radar for first-time patients who she likes to personally escort to their destination to make sure their initial PM experience is positive. Over the years, she has trained dozens of volunteers who sit at the desk with her and says, simply: "They make me look good; they are the ones who make me shine."
Dr. Mary Gospodarowicz, Program Medical Director, calls Barb "one of the 'PMH Originals' (who are) dedicated to patients and highly competent in their jobs, exhibiting unparalleled humanity, compassion and tenacity.
"Barb has been part of the PM family for decades and her dedication to our patients and our centre is legendary."
Two career highlights stand out for Barb. In 2010, she received a Gerald Kirsh Humanitarian Award. The nominations praised her skills and empathy:
In 2015, she was floored to be named the CBC's first "Torontonian of the Year" when the Metro Morning radio team invited listeners to call in and suggest who should receive the honour because of their special impact on the quality of life in our city.
Longtime volunteer and former patient Nina Betson nominated Barb. "Most people come directly to the information desk when they arrive and Barb always has all the information. Even when she doesn't, she finds it!
"She's very helpful, kind, and funny. She puts everybody at ease, it's a special talent."
Paul Alofs, outgoing President and CEO of The Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, spent his first weeks volunteering beside Barb to immerse himself in the "secret sauce" of the PM community when he joined the foundation 14 years ago. He still stops by daily to check in with her.
"She has her finger on the pulse of our patients," Paul says. "Barb is a true patient advocate and staff superstar, and a fine example of the extraordinary and caring individuals who make the Princess Margaret and UHN such a special place."
Over the years, Barb has noticed the impact of technology on how people communicate. "There's less eye contact, people seem very busy on their screens, and they can definitely be ruder. We seem to be losing the personal touch but I still believe in the power of hugs when people ask for one."
Not a day goes by without tears – happy and sad – at the info desk. Former patients and staff come back year after year to catch up with Barb and share their news and photos. "The graduates," Barb calls them.
She knows she'll hugely miss her extensive PM family but says it's time to move on and enjoy more time with her own – which now includes three grandchildren – and do some volunteering in her neighbourhood near the zoo.
Barb, always quick with a quip and an endless capacity to laugh at herself, says: "At times it's been a real circus around here, so I think I'm well trained to volunteer at the zoo!"
The PM family will bid a bittersweet farewell to Barb on her last day of work, Nov. 30, at a celebration tea from 2-4 p.m. in the 7th floor Research Atrium of the cancer centre.