Why I spent time as a hospital volunteer; when this education coordinator became a hospital volunteer, she found not only satisfaction in the work but a better technologist inside herself.
There will never be a good time to have leukemia, but just now, four days before Christmas, made Aaron's plight seem even worse. He looked worried. "Something's wrong with this transfusion, my chest is leaking," he told me when I wheeled the library cart to his bed.
I stepped outside to get a nurse. As she changed his dressing and checked the line, she explained what she was doing. The talk, as much as the ministration, erased the worry from his face.
Aaron was a patient at the 584-bed University of Kansas Bell Memorial Hospital, and I was there putting in extra time as a volunteer during the holiday break from my MLT teaching duties. We made small talk first; then he spoke of his disease.
He had been diagnosed as having leukemia nine months earlier and still knew very little about it, except that the chemotherapy was supposed to "wipe out the bad cells." No one should be that much in the dark about his own serious illness, so I gave him a list of pertinent reference books.
Hundreds of such small encounters during a year of hospital volunteer work strengthened my outlook as a health professional and made me a better teacher. While test values are important in patient care, so too, for the ailing spirit, is a voice after long silence--someone to pass the time with.
Many of my laboratory colleagues find seven or eight hours a day at the bench quite enough, but another few hours a week at bedside would widen their perspective. When you actually see the patients your work affects, you will be hard-pressed afterward not to bring that reality back to the lab.
I have heard some laboratorians reject the notion of colunteer work for a number of reasons. They feel it would be a waste of time, or that their skills and talents will not be used appropriately, resulting in their being placed in a job for which they are not sutied. None of these concerns is really valid. The patient's need is the overriding consideration.
There's a legend in the Middle East about a sparrow lying on his back in the middle of a road. A passing horseman stops and asks him what he's doing.
"I heard the heavens will fall today," the sparrow replies.
"Oh, and I suppose your spindly little legs can hold up the heavens?"
"One does what one can," says the sparrow.
I thought of that story as I stood by while the nurse looked after Aaron. I had begun volunteering an hour or two a week at the hospital in connection with my membership in Junior League. All members must volunteer for some community service for a year.
Volunteering at the hospital, I figured, would give me a first-hand look at the diseases that I study and teach about. In my hematology class, for example, I now often refer to the leukemia patients I saw as a volunteer. Aside from the practical application, though, I found the work personally rewarding and uplifting.
Many patients greatly appreciate someone simply stopping by their bedside for a few minutes. Most encounters are far from depressing, and when the family or other visitors join the volunteer at the patient's bed, the atmosphere becomes almost festive.
Much of the time you can only be a sympathetic listener. On a subsequent visit with Aaron, he said the chemotherapy was making him very ill. He was unable to keep any food down. There was nothing I could do for him except provide companionship.
Some of the patients I visited needed very little, while others required much attention. Jeffrey, for instance, was a teenager from Topeka recovering from hip surgery--all he wanted was an automotive magazine. Lois, on the other hand, was undergoing radiation therapy for advanced leukemia and needed me to hold a straw for the simple act of drinking her apple juice. She had large, red sores on her face, and her hair was falling out. But, despite all she had undergone, she could actually chat about her wigs in between sips of her drink.
Volunteering may also involve assisting relatives of patients while they wait in the waiting rooms; anything from getting coffee to helping those from out of town find a place to stay. Or it may entail working in the hospital pharmacy or wheeling patients around from place to place within the hospital. Sometimes you try to calm an anxious relative. I once spoke with a woman whose husband had undergone six coronary artery bypasses. When our conversation began, tears welled up in her eyes. A half hour later, she was smiling.
Volunteers are needed in every hospital in the country. Just how real is the need? It can be seen graphically in these statistics: The University of Kansas Medical Center includes 50 buildings, admits 400 patients a week, and treats another 6,000 a week on an outpatient basis. Yet its weekly volunteer staff numbers only about 150.
Before being assigned, I first had to go for an internview with the hospital's coordinator of volunteer services. The coordinator tries to determine why someone is volunteering and what the person's skills and interests are. Volunteers are needed for a wide variety of jobs.
One volunteer at the hospital compiles information on a word processor one day a week in the cancer data section. Others are chapel assistants or clerical workers in various departments. Some assist in administering tests in the psychological testing department. While most volunteers put in six or seven hours once a week, hours are flexible.
After the interview with the hospital's volunteer service coordinator, I began wheeling a library cart full of magazines and books around the fourth and fifth floors of the hospital--the floors where cancer patients, general medicine patients, and cardiac and orthopedic patients stay. The more seriously ill patients didn't order books much; they were too distracted for lengthy stretches of reading.
On my first few visits, I covered the floors rather rapidly. But I began feeling that I was missing the whole point by not spending more time talking with the patients. So I started using the magazines and books as ice breakers--openers to get me into conversation with patients.
Many patients may appear reticent at first, but beneath their surface coolness, I often found a desire to open up to someone. That was the case with Jim, a 31-year-old patient, who had been admitted for a drug-induced low white count. Although he had not been diagnosed with cancer, he was in the cancer ward and quite frightened about it.
I asked if he wanted a magazine. He said he had plenty of reading material. I asked if everything else was all right, and even though he said yes he seemed somewhat hesitant. I had started for the next room but decided to go back instead. I introduced myself to Jim, and I asked where he lived, about his parents, about his job. He taught biology, so we wound up having a lot to talk about. I was glad that I had returned, for he obviously thirsted for conversation.
He was 60 miles from home. His parents weren't expected for a couple of days--they were traveling in from Iowa. For the moment, I was the only person Jim could talk to. When I left his room, I could tell that the visit had made a positive difference.
I didn't see Jim again before he was released a short time later. But the thought of helping make his hospital stay a little more pleasant remains with me today.
I was always careful not to interfere with the nurses' duties. In fact, I never told patients or nurses I was a medical technologist. If I had told patients, I might have placed myself in the uncomfortable position of having to discuss their laboratory results. And I thought telling the nurses might just create unnecessary tension between them and myself.
Several years ago, former Michigan governor George Romney made a statement about volunteerism, the spirit of which has been rekindled more recently by President Reagan. Romney said: "Nothing can melt human and social problems faster than the willingess of one individual to involve himself voluntarily in helping another individual overcome his problems."
I believe that, but self-fulfillment is part of the experience, too. Getting out of the laboratory and having direct patient contact was an exciting change. It also made the work I do in the lab more meaningful.