Frustrations with Volunteer Experience

Hey everybody-

I know my complaint here is pretty specific, but I’m hoping somebody will be able to commiserate and/or provide advice.

I’ve just finished my fifth night of volunteering in the Emergency Department of a local hospital. My duties certainly aren’t exciting, but I am happy to have some patient contact. I spend most of my time fetching food and drinks for patients and family members, wiping down rooms and changing sheets after patients are discharged, taking laundry to the laundry chute, etc. But if none of those things need to be done, it is HORRENDOUSLY BORING. I wander the halls trying to look helpful, but I feel like I’m just wasting time. And even when I’m busy, I have to spend a lot of time bugging the nurses about whether so-and-so is allowed to have a Ginger Ale, or whether they’re aware that so-and-so has requested more pain meds. I’m already starting to get the impression that the nurses think “Now what?” each time I walk up to the station.

So here’s my question: As a volunteer, how can I balance the bored, wandering the halls periods with the bugging the nurses constantly periods?

And also, is this really worth my time? I’m pregnant and have a two year old, and I’m having trouble seeing the point in pacing the E.D. with nothing to do in the late hours of the night. I love to be there when I can really help, but tonight I left a half an hour early because there was nothing to do and I was tired of being a nuisance to the staff. I don’t really get to see or learn anything, and I wonder if my time wouldn’t be better spent watching reruns of House or perusing an anatomy book.

Anybody else feeling this way?

My husband volunteered at Harborview in Seattle, WA and they are the major emergency hospital in the area. He said, he never quite felt comfortable in the ED and there was always a TON to do. I am thinking that the feeling goes with that department. When I started volunteering I found a strange little department I wanted to know more about. Blood Management. Under their umbrella I was placed in the Ambulatory Infusion Center. This is at a big Seattle hospital, the department itself is small. I work with the same 2 nurses every Thursday. I do everything the ED vols do, however, I can get my hands on paperwork and can run for pharmacy pickup. I think it also means my nurses are vested in keeping me interested, and keeping me there. My four hours flies by.

I am wondering if you should keep your ears open for some strange obscure area that keeps you busy and gets you the direct patient interaction needed? I also encourage you to look at this as “doing your time”. It’s a means to the end goal. That in itself might keep you going. Best wishes!

I think volunteering, in your case, is more akin to shadowing or being a “fly on the wall” of which you are not.

When I shadow, I do nothing but stand as discretely as one can in an exam room, say nothing, ask nothing, smile and am as polite as I can possibly be. I’m forever grateful for the opportunity that not many get. When the time comes and he is not dictating, answering phone calls, getting coffee, flicking rubber bands at the nurses, or otherwise busy, I ask away. He lets me know when it’s time to be fly-on-wall again…

I have found that by being as unobtrusive as possible, the things I’ve been a part of have been amazing and convincing. In fact on Friday, I didn’t need to even ask, I was dragged to the ER. AWESOME!

It seems to me, that maybe your expectations of what volunteering really was going to be like is vastly different than what the hospital can reasonably accommodate: you are not a nurse, you are not a physician, you are not an EMT, you ARE a volunteer.

Some days may just be like that. Now that you have seen it, maybe find something else that is more suitable for you. I bet you will be far happier and busy!!

I currently volunteer in a local ED as well. There’s nothing terribly exciting about the things I do, but I have found that the longer I’m there (and the more the nurses know me), I’m allowed to do more and more. It takes time… you’re not paid, your’ not trained, and you’re not covered by the hostpital’s insurance in many cases. They do need to be careful about what they allow us to do for those reasons.

Give it some time. You’re actually doing much more than some ED volunteers I’ve talked to, and you’re just five shifts in!

On another note, I like to think of my time in the ED as networking opportunities. I’m a mom of three (the oldest being newly 4 years old), and this is a rare and convenient opportunity for me to get to know physicians over time that might be willing to let me tag along with them at some point. I’ve had the chance to meet other pre-med students there as well and compare notes on admission requirements in different schools, professors at local schools, etc.

Take your time and get to know people. You’re not there for skill acquisition; you’re there for service and networking. (And remember to have fun… I’ve really enjoyed joking around with people now that I know them!)

Good luck, and enjoy!

Thanks for the advice! You’ve all given me some things to think about and options to consider, and I really appreciate it.

Tonight was really, so much better than last night, and I’m feeling good about volunteering again. It was busy, and I was able to stay active without being too bothersome. I think it will just take time for me to be able to maintain that balance every shift, and it will get better as I get to know the staff better, too. And of course, some nights are going to be less fun and I’ll just have to take it in stride.

Something to keep in mind:

being a physician is not all fun and games continual excitement and great/cool patients…

sometimes it is monotonous even if you specialize.

No, I know it’s not, and that’s probably a big part of why med schools require volunteer/shadowing experience. It’s impossible to keep up the illusion that your life as an M.D. is going to be like TV when you’ve spent any significant amount of time in an actual hospital.

That is what I did but things get better the longer you are there…you just started so do not expect so much so soon.

I’ve been volunteering in the ER as well and I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one feeling that way. I have been in the ER for the last 4 months and there are some busy nights and some very quiet ones.

I know it sounds bad to hope for some excitement and action to happen in the ER. Everytime I was due to go in, I would pray and hope that we get busy. It wasn’t until I really thought about how silly I sound. I know I need the experience and the action to keep me busy for the 4 hours I’m there but then I guess I should be glad no one is in danger or in a car accident.

But yes, I do understand exactly what you mean because I pace the hall asking for things to do too. I really think it depends where the hospital is located as well. I remember one doctor who was doing her residency one night while I was volunteering told me how surprised she was to how quiet the ER was that night because when she was in one of the hospital in the downtown metro area, it was non-stop action.

Maybe you should ask if you could be transfer to another department. Find an area where you can have the experience you need. I just asked to be transfer to the Cancer Patient floor and will start there this coming tuesday so I’m excited about that because I wanted the patient care/contact experience.

Good luck and let us know how it goes…

I did a clinical research internship in an ED, and I felt exactly the same way. The cases that met the requirements of our studies were very few and far-between (sepsis, rule-out meningitis, etc.) It was particularly frustrating to me, since I worked in an operating room for years, and I was basically allowed to do anything the nurses could do, including circulating for cases with an RN signing the paperwork and taking responsibility for my actions. The physicians and nurses I worked with trusted me to prepare medications, fill out intra-operative paperwork, take vital signs, occasionally assist in surgery (not just retracting, but actually tying off vessels and suturing), and even assess patients in the recovery room. I put in tons of “volunteer” hours during lunch and after hours, picked their brains, and read nursing and anesthesia journals. They knew that I was serious about learning and helping patients, so they treated me like a student, not just another employee punching a time card.

In the ED, I may as well have been a well-intentioned 12-year-old, who was basically getting in everyone’s way if I tried to help at all. I made friends with some of the house staff and earned enough respect that they’d allow me to enter critical care rooms, and “pre-triage” patients, meaning that during an onslaught, I could choose which patients would be seen first by the triage nurses, and I could interrupt them if someone showed up with chest pain and diaphoresis. Still, I felt like another college student who knew absolutely nothing. Previously, I had volunteered my services on international medical missions. It was demoralizing to realize that I could offer no more than a hand to hold in my local emergency department.

It was even more disturbing to watch 20-year-old pre-meds brag about seeing a code, frighteningly insensitive to the plight of that patient and his/her family. As an aspiring ER doc, I am aware that I need to disconnect just enough to do my job, but I hope that I NEVER become someone who hopes to see a horrendous case just to boost my resume and skill set. I assisted in trauma cases in the OR, but they have ALL stayed with me…it still hurts to think about those who didn’t make it, and I wonder about those who did…

In the meantime, I have been volunteering in my school’s hospital blood bank. Initially, I handed out cookies and juice during blood drives, but I’ve gotten to know the director very well. I work with professors who are willing to offer extra credit to students who donate blood, or if they cannot, attend a blood education seminar and write a paper about the importance of blood donation. Recently, I have been put in charge of coordinating “directed donors,” meaning finding appropriate donors for patients (often infants) who require regular blood transfusions. I keep track of transfusion dates, and try to schedule at least 5 donors two weeks before each transfusion. I also keep track of who is a top-priority donor, which has taught me a lot. For example, newborns should have donors who are their blood type, CMV- (less than 1/3 of the population), AND ideally, have never been pregnant.

Long story short, I think you should just keep looking for a place where you feel useful. I thought all I’d do at the blood bank was to hand out juice and cookies. I’ve learned more through my continued service here than I did in a busy emergency department. As you know, it’s nice for ED patients to have a hand to hold, but you feel like you’re in the way. In many departments, volunteers just file papers. Look around. In some hospitals (especially university hospitals), there are people who believe in mentoring students. I found that person in the blood bank. And she is willing to entrust non-traditional students and adult community volunteers with duties that are a step above organizing blood drives.

Not that those duties are less significant, but I’ve learned so much just by building relationships with parents of children with blood disorders or cancers. They’re terrified, and they know no more than you do. They’re grateful in a way that’s somewhat more meaningful than the patients whose hands you hold, because you ARE holding their hands, while taking a proactive role in finding blood and marrow donors.

So look around. You don’t know what you’ll find out there. At least you can find volunteer work that’s meaningful enough that you don’t regret lost time with your family.

Shadowing is also important, if you don’t have clinical experience. I really like Mary’s suggestion (on previous posts, I think)…shadow a primary care physician.