Daily Mail


As an 18-year-old, the Mail’s Dr Max vol­un­teered at his lo­cal hos­pi­tal to help oth­ers. It trans­formed HIS life too – and taught him more about car­ing than six years in med­i­cal school ever could...

- By Dr MAX PEM­BER­TON Health · Mental Health · Medicine · Society · Lifestyle · Dogs · Health Conditions · Pets · Hobbies

THe el­derly woman on the trol­ley in A&e had come into hos­pi­tal with a bro­ken hip af­ter a bad fall. She was in pain, un­able to walk and scared. Yet the thing caus­ing her most dis­tress was the thought of her York­shire ter­rier at home alone, with­out any food.

Med­i­cally, this wasn’t a con­cern — it’s not some­thing the sur­geons are go­ing to worry about when some­one is so gravely un­well. The nurses on the ward have more than enough to do with­out think­ing about a dog.

Yet for the pa­tient, this was the most im­por­tant thing and she would never have been able to fo­cus on get­ting bet­ter un­til she knew her dog was looked af­ter.

In stepped the vol­un­teer cov­er­ing the ward. ‘Don’t worry,’ he re­as­sured her. ‘I’ll sort ev­ery­thing out.’

He went to her house, checked on the dog, fed him, then called a char­ity that pro­vides fos­ter homes for pets while their own­ers are in hos­pi­tal.

He even got reg­u­lar photo-up­dates from the ‘fos­ter par­ents’ to show the pa­tient while she re­cov­ered, to re­as­sure her that her beloved dog was fine. It al­lowed her the peace of mind to fo­cus on get­ting bet­ter.

This is just one of the count­less ex­am­ples I’ve seen over the years of the ex­tra­or­di­nary im­pact vol­un­teers have on pa­tient care.

The fact is, vol­un­teers are the back­bone of the NHS. With­out them, I don’t think the NHS would sur­vive. Yet they are of­ten the unsung heroes of the health ser­vice, go­ing about their work qui­etly and with ded­i­ca­tion, their value too of­ten over­looked. VOl­uN­TeeRS

do the kind of work doc­tors are nurses are un­able to do, but that is so vi­tal for the pa­tients. Some­times medicine can be too fo­cused on the bi­o­log­i­cal side of things — di­ag­no­sis, treat­ment, pills, op­er­a­tions — but the so­cial as­pect of medicine is just as im­por­tant, and this is where vol­un­teers can step in.

They have the lux­ury of time to spend with pa­tients, mak­ing sure they are com­fort­able, talk­ing to them and lis­ten­ing in a way that many staff would love to do but, sadly, never have enough time.

A cup of tea when you’re thirsty, an ex­tra blan­ket when you’re cold — it’s vol­un­teers who can step in and help out on a ward to make sure pa­tients are get­ting the best care and are as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble.

Vol­un­teers aren’t there to re­place paid staff or to cut staffing costs. Rather, they aug­ment and en­hance the med­i­cal or sur­gi­cal care the NHS pro­vides, so peo­ple re­ceive more holis­tic treat­ment that im­proves their well­be­ing.

This band of merry men and women give us so much, which is why I want to cham­pion their work and join the Mail’s call to arms — a call that has been backed by ev­ery­one from the head of the NHS, Si­mon Stevens, to the health­care unions and nurs­ing bod­ies — to get more peo­ple vol­un­teer­ing to help the NHS.

It is of­ten as­sumed that vol­un­teer­ing in the NHS is just for peo­ple who have re­tired. Not so. Over the years I have met peo­ple of all ages and from all walks of life. In fact, when I was 18 and had just started med­i­cal school, I too vol­un­teered and was placed on a gen­eral med­i­cal ward.

I vol­un­teered with a friend and fel­low stu­dent — we were at a tra­di­tional med­i­cal school where the first three years were spent in classes, but we felt so pas­sion­ately about the NHS that we wanted to help straight away.

My job was to run er­rands for the pa­tients, make them tea and keep those with­out vis­i­tors com­pany.

There’s no doubt that I, too, ben­e­fited. And that’s the thing about vol­un­teer­ing. It’s not just about what it can do for oth­ers: it also gives the vol­un­teer so much.

I had vol­un­teered think­ing that I would help oth­ers. But ac­tu­ally, it helped me. On my first day in the hos­pi­tal I met an el­derly woman who told me in a mat­ter- of-fact way that she was dy­ing. She had just had ter­mi­nal can­cer di­ag­nosed.

I’d never met any­one who was dy­ing and didn’t know what to say or how to act. But over the course of many weeks we struck up a close friend­ship.

I would run er­rands for her, then sit by her bed while she told me sto­ries of her life. She would lis­ten to what­ever teenage drama I was hav­ing, shake her head and give me sage ad­vice.

In the six months I knew her, she taught me more about life and death than six years at med­i­cal school ever could. When she was dis­charged I con­tin­ued to visit her at home, and then when she went in to a hospice.

She had a pro­found im­pact on me and I re­main deeply grate­ful for the ex­pe­ri­ences I had while vol­un­teer­ing. Yes, some­times I saw sad things. But more than any­thing it was a heart-warm­ing, up­lift­ing and ful­fill­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that changed me for the bet­ter.

Some peo­ple’s jobs lend them­selves to cer­tain vol­un­teer­ing roles. For ex­am­ple, in an eat­ing dis­or­der ser­vice I used to work in, one young vol­un­teer worked as a stylist for mag­a­zines.

For peo­ple with eat­ing dis­or­ders, go­ing out to buy new clothes can be a source of great anx­i­ety — but it can also be a ther­a­peu­tic part of re­cov­ery. Many will only ever have dressed in chil­dren’s clothes be­cause they are so thin, or in very baggy ap­parel to hide how un­der­weight they are. They may never have been into a clothes shop for adults, let alone tried clothes on in one.

As they get bet­ter and re­store their weight, so they will need a new wardrobe. But as­sem­bling it can be very stress­ful.

So this vol­un­teer would go with them and help them choose what to wear, giv­ing ad­vice and sug­gest­ing things that might suit them. She had a nat­u­ral flair for spot­ting what peo­ple would look good in, and know­ing in­tu­itively what they would feel com­fort­able in. And the im­pact she had on pa­tients was as im­por­tant to their re­cov­ery as any other as­pect of treat­ment.

But the NHS needs peo­ple with all sorts of skills — and you never know what trans­fer­able skills you may have. You cer­tainly don’t need any clin­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

On the de­men­tia ward where I once worked, one vol­un­teer was a strap­ping 6ft po­lice­man from Brix­ton — not a nat­u­ral fit, you might have thought, for a ward where most pa­tients were frail, el­derly peo­ple with de­men­tia.

But this was a spe­cial­ist ward for those whose de­men­tia had pro­gressed so far that their be­hav­iour was deemed too chal­leng­ing even MANY for a spe­cial­ist nurs­ing home.

of the pa­tients were dis­tressed and might lash out. Many couldn’t speak but would wan­der, lost and scared.

There was some­thing about the pres­ence of this man that had a most as­ton­ish­ing calm­ing ef­fect on them. Of course, they didn’t know he was a po­lice­man but there was no doubt his day job meant he had de­vel­oped a re­as­sur­ing yet au­thor­i­ta­tive pres­ence. And don’t

un­der­es­ti­mate the ef­fect that vol­un­teer schemes such as the League of Friends shops you find in most hospi­tals, or the li­brary trol­ley, have on help­ing pa­tients re­cover. They pro­vide them with vi­tal so­cial in­ter­ac­tion, en­cour­age them to get up, walk about and talk to oth­ers. They wouldn’t ex­ist with­out vol­un­teers.

It’s not just pa­tients and their fam­i­lies whom vol­un­teers help. They can help the staff, too.

When I was a ju­nior doc­tor, an el­derly man would come ev­ery morn­ing and fetch fresh milk, bread and news­pa­pers for the ju­nior doc­tors on call. Early one morn­ing, when I had been up all night work­ing and was hav­ing a cup of tea be­fore the morn­ing ward round, he came in and we started talk­ing. I asked him why he had started vol­un­teer­ing.

His wife had died on one of the wards a decade ago, he told me. The night be­fore, she had been in a lot of pain and a ju­nior had stayed up with her all night to make sure her pain med­i­ca­tion was cor­rect and she was com­fort­able.

He had been so grate­ful, he wanted to do some­thing to say thank you and had been vol­un­teer­ing ever since. His ded­i­ca­tion and thought­ful­ness made all the dif­fer­ence to tired, fraz­zled ju­niors af­ter a night shift.

While it’s best to vol­un­teer reg­u­larly, some­times it’s dif­fi­cult to com­mit to this. But mak­ing a com­mit­ment at key times once or twice a year can also be help­ful.

I re­mem­ber a chil­dren’s ward where a group of so­lic­i­tors would de­scend for an af­ter­noon a few weeks be­fore Christ­mas — not to sue the med­i­cal staff but to give the chil­dren a Christ­mas party.

They or­gan­ised and paid for ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing a buf­fet, en­ter­tain­ment and a present for each child.

Many of the chil­dren were ter­mi­nally ill and it would be the last Christ­mas they saw. The so­lic­i­tors did more for the well­be­ing of the chil­dren that day than any of us doc­tors or nurses could, frankly.

It would be wrong to think this was pure al­tru­ism. ‘I’ve had the best day ever,’ I over­heard some­one say. It was one of the so­lic­i­tors. I would en­cour­age ev­ery­one to think about vol­un­teer­ing. The fact is, we all have the ca­pac­ity to help oth­ers in need and a hos­pi­tal vol­un­teer can of­ten help in ways a doc­tor or nurse can­not.

For those un­for­tu­nate enough to have to spend time in hos­pi­tal, no tablet can ever be a sub­sti­tute for that com­pas­sion­ate sup­port.

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