A man in his late 80s is lying in an unfamiliar bed, crusted blood showing between the sides of the head-immobilizing device he wears. He can barely see through his swollen and battered eyes. In a shaky voice, he calls out, “Where am I?” to the empty room. As I draw nearer, he reaches out and clasps my hand.
I am a volunteer at the county hospital in Cleveland, which sees mostly poverty-stricken, uninsured trauma patients. My mom found this opportunity and after realizing the need, I had an interview with the director of volunteer services. Once accepted, I went through orientation on hospital cleanliness and privacy and got my uniform as well as my ID badge. I was then introduced to the two women in charge of the Hospital Elder Life Program, developed at Yale University and modified for our hospital.
I watched videos as well as having hands-on training. Then, I began my duties on the hospital’s orthopedic, medical, trauma and general surgery units. At all times, however, I was in direct communication with a nurse. I volunteer three hours twice a week feeding, walking, and talking with patients.
Not only has it been medically shown (by the founder of the program) that performing these duties helps decrease the rate of dementia in the elderly, but I have personally seen that it helps their spirits. In many instances, within 40 minutes, the patients eat more, cry less, and seem happier. This is what happened to one man I visited who was experiencing alcohol withdrawal. When I entered his room, the man in his early 40s did not want to be bothered, since he apparently did not like eating in front of other people. However, by the end of my visit, he had eaten more than he had in days and was encouraging me not to consume alcohol.
This opportunity was not only important because it helped provide comfort and encouragement, but I learned valuable information I could use later in life. Not only did I learn about the chain of command, patient privacy and proper documentation, but also I grasped the importance of responsibility and the skills needed when dealing with people, especially the elderly, when they are at their most vulnerable.
This opportunity, as I imagine any hospital-based experience would be, was extremely beneficial in helping me make decisions about college since it allowed me to witness all aspects of the medical field from the physical fitness trainer and dietician to the nurses and doctors. It is for this reason that I would encourage volunteering in a career you may be considering, especially medicine since there are so many valuable lessons to derive from the experience.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.