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Hospital Volunteer

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The little boy with the tousled blond hair was pained and confused.

A badly broken arm pushed tears down his face, and strange people wearing white and green coats swirled around him. He would soon undergo surgery, and fear gleamed in his eyes.

Melissa Thomson, a volunteer in the emergency room of a children's hospital, certainly noticed it. But she also noticed how much he was willing to help those who wanted to help him.

Another four-year-old may have acted differently, but not this one.

"He was genuinely terrified at everything that was going on, but absolutely willing to cooperate even though you could see his sheer terror," says Thomson. "That's rare."

She rewarded his courage by giving him a brand new motorcycle toy. She had carried it in her volunteer uniform for over a year, waiting for the right time.

"You should have seen the simplicity of that moment," says Thomson. "The parents' appreciation, his quiet fascination and then his implicit trust -- it was incredibly rewarding, just that simple gesture."

Such simple gestures give hospital volunteers a chance to make a big difference.

Hospital volunteers, generally, support paid hospital staff.

They escort patients and comfort them and their families. They guide ambulance crews when they arrive at a hospital. They serve meals and give out the information to guests and visitors. They go into the community to raise funds and awareness for causes.

They are everywhere, says Terry Zarker. She is the director of volunteers for a hospital in Seattle.

She says her volunteers work in 50 different places throughout the hospital, freeing up valuable financial and human resources that may be needed in more critical areas.

"The volunteers are very important to the hospital day to day," she says. "They don't replace critical staff, but they are what makes the hospital a more humane place to be."

Indeed, they will become more important in the future, Zarker says. That is because hospitals and health centers across North America may soon face a nursing shortage.

Peter Buerhaus is a past director of the Harvard Nursing Research Institute. He has predicted that there will be a significant shortage of registered nurses -- just as the demand for them will rise with the retirement of the baby boomers.

Zarker says the future nursing shortage will force hospitals to take another look at the way hospitals are run. "What care must be provided by a nurse, and what things can be done by other people?" Zarker says.

She says certain jobs do not require a nursing degree. "So volunteers will be able to do more and more," she says.

Unfortunately, the number of hospital volunteers is going down for a number of reasons. For one, people have less time to volunteer because they need to work more to make ends meet, says Rosemary Fox. She chairs the American Hospital Association's committee on volunteers.

Hospital volunteers also have a lot of gray hair, a report by the Health-Care Association of New York State and Volunteers of America suggests. It says a considerable number of volunteers are over 70.

"Right now, we still have some of our older people, but they are dropping out daily because they are no longer able to do their work," says Fox. "And we are just not recruiting with the same rapidity that they are leaving."

Fox says hospitals and health centers in the U.S. need an extra 500,000 volunteers to maintain current levels of service. The decline in the number of hospital volunteers will also impact fund-raising and advocacy efforts, Fox says.

Hospitals need more volunteers. But do not expect to practice medicine in any way, shape or form.

As a volunteer in the emergency room, Thomson is as close to the action as one can possibly get without holding a degree.

"If there is a nurse and a doctor and screaming children, then absolutely, we can be in there," she says. "We are part of the team. In the emergency department, the volunteers are absolutely included in the team."

But her role in the emergency room is clearly limited. "The only thing we would do unattended is play with the child, or take a child to a procedure," she says.

"In fact, if the family said, 'What's wrong with my child, what's going to happen?' technically, I would never answer that question. I would say, 'I'm happy to get the nurse for you. They will be able to answer your question.'"

Mary Putney volunteers up to 40 hours a week at her local hospital. That's an incredible feat if you consider that she has a pinched nerve in her neck.

It forced her to go on disability in 2006 just as her banking career was taking off. Unable to work, she felt isolated from the outside world and unappreciated.

A friend who worked at the hospital said she should volunteer there. She has done so since 2011, and it seems to have done wonders for her.

Her health has improved and she has been able to learn new skills.

More importantly, it has given her a chance to help the hospital community and feel better about herself at the same time.

"I just think that the feeling you get for yourself by helping others is very, very important," she says. "It gave me a lot of self-esteem and importance when I was feeling at a low-point by not being able to work."

Fox volunteers for a hospital in Atlanta that she helped to open when she moved from New York. She is part of a community outreach program that travels to local elementary schools to speak about drugs.

After one speech, a Grade 4 student approached her.

He told her that he was so impressed by her speech, he would now try to help his older brother recover from drugs. "We felt very satisfied that we were making a difference," says Fox. "If we weren't helping the brother, at least we were helping this younger child."

Volunteering at a hospital may also help you land a job. Laurie Scott volunteered for six months at a hospital.

Her job was to take pictures of newborn babies with their mothers. "It was challenging trying to get babies to cooperate," she says. "But it was rewarding as well."

And it eventually led to a job in the records department. "It got me into the hospital environment," she says. "People were aware of how I was, and it gave me an edge when the opening was available."

But do not expect to land a job if you decide to volunteer, Zarker says.

How to Get Involved

Generally, hospitals of every kind and size need volunteers.

But the application process may be lengthy. Prospective volunteers must fill out an application form as well as an immunization form. Hospitals may also ask for references.

Prospective volunteers must also go through an interview. They have to sign a confidentiality agreement if they are selected. And they cannot be picky about where they would like to volunteer. Zarker says prospective volunteers must be willing to start wherever a job needs to be done.

"You need to be somewhat flexible," she says. And you must be committed. Otherwise, other volunteers or paid staff members will have to do your job.

A general orientation follows the interview stage. Volunteers in certain areas of the hospital such as the emergency room will get additional training. Some hospitals also have probationary periods.


Hospital Volunteer Guide
Review the range of jobs and requirements volunteers fulfill

American Hospital Association
It speaks for hospitals and health centers in the United States

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