When it comes to volunteering ALL of us can be good Samaritans
In a heartfelt and uplifting message in support of the Mail’s Christmas campaign, a leading cleric says...
FIVE years ago I had a course of chemotherapy in a cancer ward at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. It was a bustling out-patient department filled daily by people at a low and frightening point in their lives.
Rather as expected, I was greatly impressed by the diligence of the medical staff who were completely occupied with the treatment of the patients. Their duties had to be carried out with enormous care and often under increasing demands on their time.
Because chemotherapy patients like me were there for most of the day, we had a clear idea of the kinds of shifts these doctors and nurses were working. They were there to receive us early in the morning and often stayed until the last treatment was completed early in the evening.
Time passes slowly for patients receiving this gruelling treatment. Yet, such was the scale of their workload, the staff often seemed in a constant race against time. Thank heavens, then, for the other team of carers in our midst – the volunteers prepared to donate their time to easing the burden of patients and hospital workers alike.
When I was at the Western General, volunteers regularly visited the ward, bringing refreshments, lunch and, just as importantly, a cheerful smile. Others would give complementary care. I remember some patients taking up their offers of a massage or exercises in mindfulness to help reduce their stress levels.
Another group of volunteers ran an excellent hospital café, which acted as a meeting point for patients and their family and friends. Others volunteered to drive people receiving chemotherapy to and from the hospital. For those on their own, without transport, feeling debilitated and very poorly, just imagine the difference this simple act of kindness made to them.
The final group of volunteers were those who came to the hospital just to offer a listening ear, not only to patients but to their family members or carers.
As I know from experience, discovering that you are poorly and working through the consequences in your head is frightening and usually difficult to talk about. The story of this unsettling discovery and how it has made you feel can take some time to tell, but talking about it is important.
How wonderfully well those trained volunteers gave of their time and listened. How comforting their wisdom and the frequency with which they were able to give exactly the right advice at the right time.
It is with these painful yet inspiring memories in mind that I offer my wholehearted endorsement of the campaign by the scottish Daily Mail and the charity Helpforce to encourage people to volunteer in the NHs.
Indeed, as we wonder what gifts to buy this Christmas, I can think of no better one than the gift of your time, however little or much of it you may have to offer.
For some it may be three hours a week, for others an eight-hour day per month, for six months perhaps.
Thus far the response from readers has been fantastic, with almost 20,000 people across Britain pledging more than a million hours of their time over the next six months.
But, as a churchwoman who has experienced first-hand the generosity of NHs volunteers, it seems to me I should do all I can to keep this tidal wave of kindness growing.
Nowadays I live in Aberdeen and, I am happy to report, I am presently well. My frequent visits to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary are in a pastoral capacity rather than a personal one. But whenever I go there I am moved by the contribution of volunteers.
For those who have never been there, it is like a maze inside. There are coloured stripes painted on the floor to help you find your way but I still manage to get lost nearly every time. some of the volunteers are simply there to direct people to the right place.
That may sound almost insignificant in the scheme of kindnesses, but when offered to someone who has come for an appointment or treatment and does not want to be late or suffer the anxiety of being lost, it is very welcome indeed.
As in Edinburgh, volunteers help patients with transport or serve refreshments. some help with administrative tasks, complementary treatments or creative activities such as music therapy.
But however they choose to contribute, their time is always highly valued.
The reason for that, as my own experience of the NHs in Edinburgh brought home to me, is volunteers dramatically change the experience of hospital – both for patients and carers.
They make it more personal; they calm nerves by showing that they are not in a hurry; they have the time to stay and help however they can.
No one needs me to point out that the NHs is hard-pressed for resources. Medical staff involved in patient care work with high demand and long waiting lists. Their expertise is required for levels of treatment which can only be offered by professionals.
similarly they must take time to explain both illnesses and treatments to patients because only they are qualified to do so. But this leaves little time for the smaller tasks relating
to patient care. It is these tasks which volunteers can pick up on behalf of the NHS and which really can make all the difference to a patient’s experience in hospital.
Why, some might ask, do we need volunteers so badly today? Older readers may remember the days when hospital nurses had plenty of time to spend with patients, when listening to their stories and doing their best to cheer them up was all part of the job.
But times have changed, demands on staff have become more severe and something of this very personal level of service has been lost.
There are a number of reasons: the population is ageing and living longer. Geriatric care has become more complex and costly. Advances in medicine have allowed many more conditions to be treated, with increasingly costly drugs and procedures. This is especially the case with cancer treatment.
Some problems, such as mental health conditions, are on the increase – or, at least, are being referred for medical treatment much more often.
All of this, inevitably, places ever greater demand on resources.
No one sees these challenges easing any time soon. Let us assume, then, that there will always be a gap between what the country can afford and the care that we would like to see offered.
Vlimited OLUNTEERS, in ever greater numbers thanks to the Mail’s campaign, are helping to fill that gap. They are working with the reality of a situation as it presents itself right now in cancer wards, children’s hospitals, geriatric care units and departments throughout the NHS. It is not the balance sheets of NHS boards they have regard for but the individual lives of patients.
Our illnesses do not wait. They cannot be deferred until the next financial year. Volunteer support makes a difference on the day that really matters – today.
There is something else that occurred to me as I attended my chemotherapy sessions and witnessed the acts of kindness given freely for no other reason than a desire to lighten others’ load.
And it occurs to me now as thousands more join this most altruistic of campaigns every day.
The people doing so are modern day disciples of one of the most resonant figures in the Bible.
In Luke’s Gospel, chapter 10, verses 25-37, Jesus tells the story of the man who was robbed on the road and left for dead. Two religious people walk by but both pass on the other side.
Next to come along the road was a Samaritan, traditional enemy of the Jews to whom Jesus was relating the story.
It was he who stopped, tended to the injured man’s wounds, took him to a local inn and paid for him to be cared for there.
Yes, the Good Samaritan was generous with his money. But, more importantly, he donated his time to help someone who was suffering. He took time out from his daily business to offer his compassion.
The parallels with today’s NHS volunteers, whether they are religious people or not, are both obvious and compelling. In faith communities, of course, we are used to working with volunteers.
A church might have a full or a part-time minister but everything else is done by volunteers and, through our interaction with them, we learn all about how volunteering works.
People give of their time, energy and creativity when they believe in something. They volunteer when they think the thing they are doing, however big or small, really matters.
Some give to those things where they can see a difference straight away; others give because they can see the ‘big picture’ – knowing that they are making a difference even if, in the here and now, it may be difficult to see how their contribution fits in.
In churches, this volunteering comes out of the desire both to love God and to love our neighbours. Many volunteers visit the elderly, help in food banks or run community lunches or drop-in centres.
Of those joining the NHS volunteer campaign, many may do it to express love for God too. For others, God may not be part of the equation. But in lending a hand, in giving their time, they most certainly show love for their neighbour.
They are showing their humanity just as the Samaritan did. And it is no less inspiring, no less glorious in the present day than two millennia ago.
THOSE who would like to volunteer can start the ball rolling by filling out a form online. Appropriate checks will follow and thereafter individuals will be matched with local NHS boards. Volunteer tasks will be allocated and, where necessary, training will be given.
No volunteer is expected to serve without oversight, so there will be proper relationships of accountability.
It is, after all, vital that the NHS looks after its volunteer force well because these gifts of time and service are indispensable.
So, as Christmas approaches, how about adding another name to your gift list – that of the NHS.
And, if you do, consider that your present is not so much for a health service.
It is for the elderly lady down the road who may need a lift to her appointment. It is for the gentleman with dementia who may need someone to talk to. It is for the family members who may need a cup of tea while visiting their poorly relative.
Volunteering will change the way a difficult day goes for those facing the challenges of ill health.
Could you be their Good Samaritan?
Vital work: Rt Rev Anne Dyer, pictured chatting to one of her parishioners, top, is urging Scots to draw inspiration from the Good Samaritan, above, and volunteer to help the NHS