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Barb Thomas
Barb Thomas at a celebration of her career organized by her colleagues. After 50 years of service at Toronto Western Hospital, Barb will retire in May. (Photo: Courtesy Pat Rochester)

"Are you not a nurse?" Barb Thomas asked.

Patricia Rochester was confused by the question. It was 1995 and Pat, a young nurse working casual hours for the previous six months at Toronto Western Hospital (TW), had arrived for her night shift and found her "worst nightmare."

"In those days, every unit had the same senior nurse in charge for the night shift," Pat recalls. "That night, not only was I asked to be nurse in charge because no one else was available, but all the other nurses were also casual and that was their first shift on the unit."

Knowing that the charge nurse must pick up any slack, Pat frantically called the nurse supervisor – the person overseeing operation of the hospital after hours – for help.

Barb Thomas was on duty that night. But if Pat wanted sympathy, she had called the wrong person.

"Yes," Pat answered slowly to Barb's initial question upon hearing Pat's predicament.

"And do you have a nursing license?" Barb followed up.

"Yes," Pat answered, still confused.

"And how did you get that license? Didn't you take an exam?" Barb then asked.

"Yes," Pat answered.

"And you have been working at this hospital for six months as a casual nurse?" Barb asked, but before Pat answered she continued: "Then you are more than capable of being in charge.

"Tap into your confidence and rely on your skills! But I'm here if you need help."

An absolute nursing professional

It wasn't what she expected but, looking back, it was the best help Pat could have received. She made it through the shift – Barb called periodically to check in – and was even commended for her charge report which, back then, was recorded.

"You always learned when Barb was around, just look at me today!" laughs Pat, who met with UHN News before her shift as Nurse Supervisor – now called Administrator on Site (AOS) – to attest to Barb's storied career.

"Eventually, I felt I could run the entire unit by myself if I needed to because Barb told me I could, she helped me realize there was nothing stopping me but myself."

This is the legacy that Barb, who celebrates 50 years of service at TW's upcoming Long Service Tea, leaves behind: an absolute nursing professional who expects nothing but the best from the entire hospital staff while still offering her steadfast support to all who, in turn, consider her the ultimate mentor.

"As a nurse you represent your unit, the hospital and yourself," says Barb. "My mantra is that you look at someone when speaking to them, ask if you don't understand, explain if you are asked, do what you're told and complain about it later."

Barb Thomas and Santa
Nursing Supervisor Barb Thomas and Santa pose for a photo during the holidays in the 1980s. Barb was known to volunteer on Christmas Day to give co-workers time with their families, organizing staff to go carolling on all the units. (Photo: Courtesy Barb Thomas)

Happenstance brought Barb to TW's doors in 1968. With nursing credentials in hand, she'd left Jamaica in search of new horizons and, the day after arriving in Canada, was trying to get to St. Michael's Hospital to find a job.

After the quintessential Torontonian experience of getting lost on the TTC, Barb found her way home, decided the telephone might be an easier way to inquire, and gave TW a call. Within a week of leaving Jamaica, Barb had her first nursing job.

It was a career that started on the neurosurgery unit and later took her to almost every area of the hospital as a "floater." She later settled on a unit as an assistant head nurse and soon after that became a nurse coordinator, a role she's held for the past 40 years.

Throughout, Barb has been known as a no-nonsense person who expects everyone in her charge to "mind their p's and q's."

"Everyone knew she was stern but they really admired her for that," says Pat. "Because they knew that when Barb was working, they were supported."

Despite the stern and stoic reputation, Barb was also known as reliable, with a protective, maternal side. She always volunteered to work for her colleagues, especially during the Christmas holidays, so they could be with their families; while she organized nurses on their shift to go carolling – Santa included.

"We went floor to floor singing to all the patients," Barb says. "And Santa would hand out the gifts that we had put together."

'I want to say thank you to the entire hospital staff'

Even though her career spanned many years, Barb doesn't dwell on all the change that occurred around her.

"Everything changes, you have to adapt," she says. "I've been at TW so long that the hospital hasn't just changed, it's been remade!"

What did stand out were the relationships she made that fostered a workplace family Barb was reluctant to leave. She retired in stages, first from full-time work in 2004 at age 64, but continued to fill in, supporting her colleagues when they needed a day off or needed coverage for the hospital. Her colleagues knew they could rely on her in a pinch.

But the time has come for the well-respected nursing supervisor to move on, though not necessarily for rest and relaxation.

"I'm so busy, you wouldn't believe it," she laughs.

Barb's retirement plans include more time for her exercise classes, volunteering with her church and travelling. Though she looks forward to those adventures, TW will always hold a big place in her heart.

"I want to say thank you to the entire hospital staff for their care, love and generosity," Barb says. "Working here has given me so much."

Her parting thought comes courtesy of the English poet, Rudyard Kipling: "No one should work for fame, but each for the joy of working."​

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