Beryl Carr eyes an elderly lady walking unsteadily down the hospital corridor, wearing a large patch over one eye. She tries to get up when the lady stumbles, but luckily the crisis is averted.
“That was me two weeks ago,” she nods over tea in a Tigger mug.
It turns out that Beryl has only just recovered from cataract surgery, but here she is, volunteering at the Friends’ Cafe at Ealing Hospital in London, as she does for four hours a week.
It’s worth pointing out that Beryl is 100 years old and much older than the woman she almost jumped to help. She is also the NHS’ oldest volunteer.
This week is National Volunteer’s Week, an opportunity to say thank you to those who give their time and energy to our communities and Beryl has been recognized with a Points of Light award by Downing Street for her volunteer work.
She’s getting tired, she admits, but will volunteer for as long as she can.
This is, after all, one lady who survived a wardrobe that landed on her during the Blitz.
“I’ll come and help in the coffee shop while they have me,” she says. “The café is like a family. It is important to me to work.”
Beryl, who celebrated her centenary in January, began volunteering at the cafe 18 years ago after her 60-year-old husband Bill passed away.
She quickly realized how much the café meant to those who used it; Patients and visitors, often exhausted with worries, exhausted.
“It’s nice to be able to give something back to the NHS. The NHS is special,” she says.
“I remember when my younger brother burned his hand on the stove and we had to pay for a doctor in front of the NHS. I think it was difficult for my parents to raise the money.
“It may be difficult, but the doctors and nurses always seem to be able to handle it,” she adds. “It’s my way of making my contribution, I’m doing something.”
Born in Acton, West London, in 1922, Beryl was gifted, particularly in mathematics, but left school at 15 to support her father, who worked in construction, and mother, a homemaker.
She got a paid office job, but then the war broke out.
She sewed barrage balloons when two brothers joined the Navy.
“Eric, my eldest brother, was killed in Dunkirk. He was 19,” she says more slowly. “We received a telegram saying he was missing and believed to have been killed.”
She remembers the night they lost their home in the Blitz.
“We were at the Anderson Animal Shelter in the garden but we got into bed,” she recalls. “We hadn’t been in bed long before they could be heard coming over, then the planes stopped and there was a loud bang, it came through the roof, the wardrobe fell on top of me.
“I couldn’t breathe because of the debris and dust.”
Miraculously, the whole family escaped but were made homeless in a two-bed apartment.
She met Bill, an engineer, at a dance and they married in 1942 when she was 20, but their wedding venue was also bombed.
They had their daughter Valerie in 1949 and eventually moved to Cambridgeshire for Bill’s work while Beryl went back to work in the Civil Service Office.
When Bill died she moved back to Ealing but was desperately lonely. That was the start of her volunteer career.
She is very proud of the birthday card she received from the Queen, but there is a striking resemblance between the two women, both of whom still lead lives of service.
“She’s wonderful,” says Beryl.
Beryl’s life may be very different, but there’s no doubting what brings her back.
In the café, regulars, doctors and nurses often say hello.
“It means a lot to us to have someone supporting us at this age,” explains Dr. Elizabeth Tarczynska, oral surgeon. “She inspires me.”
The cafe, tirelessly run by Ann Cousins, means a lot too. “It was closed during the pandemic, we missed it,” she adds.
dr Naheed Rana gets emotional as she joins us. She explains that she used to come to the café with her late mother, Shanaz, when her mother was in treatment.
“Beryl was always smiling, talkative and welcoming,” she recalls.
A stranger who has had hip surgery starts talking on the table next to us. She is tired.
“This aging is not funny,” comforts Beryl. She herself had a hip prosthesis in 2003.
Beryl has had to stay away during the pandemic, and she got “deep.” Being able to work again is her way. But where she does it is also key.
“You see people walking by on a stretcher and you think how lucky you are,” she explains.
https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/volunteer-aged-100-still-works-27141803 The 100-year-old volunteer is still working at the hospital cafe to 'give back to the NHS'.