The Birdman of St Vincent’s

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Pictured (above) John in his home and (below) receiving flowers from hospital staff during his recent stay. 

John Oakes found a rather unique way to thank St Vincent’s for the wonderful care he received after his heart surgery 11 years ago.

Before he was discharged, John donated a collection of tiny wooden birds and crosses to the hospital for staff to share with patients in need of some emotional support during their stay.

Designed to sit neatly in the cup of a patient’s hands when they are experiencing moments of unease or feel low, each piece is lovingly hand-carved by John – a keen whittler from the Victorian town of Bridgewater.

Fondly known around St Vincent’s as The Birdman, John has donated more than 1800 Comfort Birds over the years that have been shared with patients across the Hospital.

“John suffers with arthritis – but that certainly hasn’t stood in his way,” says Shaun Dowling-Horgan, St Vincent’s Pastoral Care Practitioner. “Every year we’ll hear from him to say, ‘The Birdman is here, and I’ve got my birds’.”

Spreading comfort and joy

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, John enjoyed being able to join the Pastoral Care Team to personally deliver some of his birds to patients and have a chat with them.

He found making the birds also helped him during his time of grief after his wife passed away.

“John would bring so much joy, comfort and delight when he’d distribute these heartfelt gifts among our patients,” Shaun says.

When visitor restrictions were enforced as part of the hospital’s COVID-19 safety protocols, John was no longer able to do his rounds, but staff still keenly handed out the birds for him.

Shaun recalls speaking to a patient who was tightly holding one of John’s Comfort Birds in her hand and saying, ‘I hold this piece of love in my hand, and it brings me great comfort and restores my faith in humanity’.”

Another patient from the US, who had returned for treatment at one of St Vincent’s clinics, told John that when he is stressed, he reaches for the bird he gave him.

“Story after story reveals the amazing impact John’s gifts have had on so many people here at St Vincent’s over the years. People felt valued when they received these unique gifts that are literally made from the heart,” says Shaun.

Inspiring kindness

Last year, John was once again admitted as a patient at St Vincent’s. This time for a sarcoma removal.  

A student nurse caring for him at the time respectfully wrote the words ‘The Birdman’ under his name above his bed after learning who he was and his valuable contribution to the hospital.

Shaun says the difference John has made to so many people is deeply moving, and his acts of kindness continue on with renewed strength.

“When a visitor saw some flowers being delivered to one of our ward receptions for The Birdman, she was quick to share that she had been one of the fortunate past recipients of one of John’s Comfort Birds, and still has it at home,” Shaun recalls.

“The Birdman is an inspiration to all who have connected with him, whether in person, or through receiving his special gifts.” 

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