Sheila and Veena Bhatia: a half century of volunteering

Sheila and Veena Bhatia

Once a week since 1996, Veena Bhatia dons a blue jacket and works in the Civic Campus shops. She followed the example of her mother, Sheila, who had been volunteering at the Civic Campus since 1984.

In total, the mother and daughter have 50 years of volunteering services between them. However, volunteering is only a part of their story. This year marks 50 years that the Civic Hospital has been part of their lives.

“The Civic was why we came here 50 years ago,” said Veena.

Before she was 23, Sheila suffered a series of terrible tragedies. As a result of the separation between India and Pakistan, her family became refugees. Then in 1947, her husband passed away from an illness, leaving her with three young children. Her baby daughter died not long after. Then, her son went to live with her husband’s family, and later contracted polio and died. Then, her toddler, Veena, fell and injured her spine, and was hospitalized for over two years. Sheila spent endless hours taking care of her precious daughter with very limited resources.  

The doctor treating Veena asked Sheila to consider a nursing profession in order to financially support herself and her daughter.  With a letter of recommendation from the physician, Sheila enrolled in a nursing program. She graduated with flying colors, ranking first in Bombay (now Mumbai), and worked in three different hospitals in India. In 1959 when she was 35, Sheila left Veena with her parents and took passage aboard a ship bound for England.  She became a nurse at a hospital in Warwick, and eventually became the head nurse of the chest surgical unit.

After high school, Veena joined her mother in England. The two experienced racial discrimination, so decided to emigrate to Canada. Sheila saw an advertisement for nurses in Canadian hospitals and applied for a job at the Civic Hospital. In February 1967, she and Veena moved to Ottawa.

They stayed at the Lord Elgin the first night, and the next morning ordered pancakes and maple syrup. It was their first truly Canadian breakfast. Then, they took a taxi to the Civic Hospital where Mrs. Tucker welcomed them and took them under her wing. She arranged accommodation for them in the nurses’ residence. They lived there for three weeks until they found an apartment. In addition, Mrs. Tucker was also instrumental in securing a secretarial job for Veena at Energy, Mines and Resources through an employment agency. The following week, Sheila began working in the intensive care unit as a nurse. The newly-arrived immigrants’ lives were soon established in Ottawa.

“Mrs. Bhatia genuinely cared about each of her patients and their families. She understood their medical and emotional needs,” said her friend Annette Legault. “Just like her mother, Veena is a compassionate, honest, caring soul with deep religious and moral standards. The mother-daughter team enjoy giving back to society by giving back to the Civic Hospital as proud volunteers.”

Although Sheila retired in 1985 after 18 years of nursing at the Civic, she chose to devote her compassion and energy to volunteering at both the Civic and the Heart Institute.

When Veena retired a decade later, she was encouraged by her mother to volunteer at the Civic as well. “So, I began volunteering too,” said Veena.

At 90 and in failing health, Sheila reluctantly hung up her blue jacket after 30 years of volunteering at the Civic Hospital.

“The hospital has basically been our home from the time we came,” said Veena. “The hospital was good to us when we arrived, so volunteering is how we can give back.”

The Bhatias have been generous with their time, and also as regular donors.  What they have given over the years is as meaningful to the hospital as what they feel the hospital has given them.