Hotline volunteer guides strangers in Hong Kong through hardship to peace
May Yam is no stranger to difficulty , surviving cancer and two divorces, but at Samaritan Befrienders hotline she says listening to others is key
During the first month of chemotherapy sessions, thyroid cancer patient May Yam Siu-fong lost about a third of her hair.
"It didn't look good," she says of the start of her treatment nine years ago. Her two younger boys were six and eight at the time, and "I said maybe mummy would look better if she's bald. They said: do it, do it! I went into the bathroom and shaved off my hair. When I came out we all laughed so much we were crouching on the floor from laughter. That's always a bright memory for me."
Yam's lymphoma began as a lump at the back of her mouth. It led to eight months of chemotherapy and then almost daily radiation treatment for weeks. "With the radiation the skin inside your throat burns off," she says. "I lost 20 pounds in a month as it was so painful to drink and eat. I would have to have a painkiller and then eat quickly before it wore off."
Yam delights in her three sons, now 25, 17 and 15, but life has been tough with two divorces and her battle with lymphoma. She tends to be positive about the knocks, though, feeling that her experiences have helped her become an empathetic listener in her work as a volunteer for the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong hotline. Yam has been a volunteer since 1997 and joined the executive committee in 2003.
When she first became a volunteer, Yam felt she could help people facing hard times, perhaps by sharing her experiences. But she realised after training "that you listen, you don't share your own experiences. You might guide [the person who phones] a little, but no more. It's important to have empathy, be patient, don't speak more than the caller. I use my heart and listen."
Some callers look for counselling, others may be suicidal. One caller was on a balcony. "You try to get them out of immediate danger," Yam says. "I said: 'It's too windy, I can't hear you very well, can you move inside? I really want to talk to you some more'."
Sometimes the callers have no friends and family, she says. "Sometimes they are alone and have no money. So I tell them 'You have me, I really want to support you. All our volunteers care about you and want to listen'."
Yam has been nominated by Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong for the Community Contribution Award of this year's Spirit of Hong Kong Awards, organised by the South China Morning Post.
Both times that her marriage failed, Yam says, she went through a bout of depression. "I lost weight, but I would also go swimming and went on a trip with a friend," she says. When her first son was a baby, Yam says she was working so hard providing accounting and managing services for a small firm that "I don't' remember his first teeth coming through or when he first started to walk, and that is a point of regret for me".
She didn't sleep enough at the time, she says, and these days she feels she has a far better balance in her life. She runs the Seed Forest Book Chamber in Shek Mun in Sha Tin, a bookstore where children and their parents can come in and read in a quiet environment. Yam says she tries to choose books with an educational theme.
There were times during her illness, she says, when it would take her five minutes to cross a room and she would lie on the bed in pain. During those times, she worked her way through all the Harry Potter books, drawing solace from transferring her mind into the realm of fantasy and away from her difficult circumstances.
"One morning I woke up and I breathed in and out slowly and it was so beautiful just to breathe without it hurting," Yam says. "The morning light was just starting to come into the bedroom. Bit by bit that warm feeling of sunlight grew. And I thought: I'm still here and I'm alive. The feeling was so sweet and wonderful.
"That's what my illness has taught me. I can treasure what I feel and what I have."