Volunteering in the ER

Greetings from Beantown!
I am extremely excited about my volunteer opportunities at a local hospital - I will spend 2 hours a week in the Pediatrics Emergency Dept and an additional 2 hours a week in the regular ER. So far, my first day in each department was fantastic!
I’m wondering if anyone has any tips on working in the ER. Will I get opportunities to “see” stuff? I will only be there for 2 hours, once a week - is that enough for the staff (docs and nurses) to get to know and trust me? Is it appropriate for me to approach someone and talk to them about my interests in medicine? If so, is there a generally expected protocol one should follow in doing this?
The volunteer coordinator at the hospital did mention that some of the nurses and docs may pull me aside and let me observe when they feel comfortable with me.
I am a self-starting and motivated person, but I worry if I might somehow be in the way or “break any rules.” I think it’s because I am scared to do something wrong and not play by the book… I know this sounds absolutely silly - I hope I’m not alone in feeling this way.
Current/past volunteers in the ER - have you had similar trepidations as me? How have you overcome them?
Current/past ER staff - How do/did you perceive the role of volunteers?
I have a strong sense that I will be able to gain the needed trust and will be able to observe interesting things… with time. I have to remember that I just started and there’s no need to jump the gun.

I think you’ve got it already - you need to let them get to know you. At some point someone is going to ask why you’re doing this - your answer WILL be passed among the staff, and when they know you’re interested in “seeing stuff,” they’ll call you in whenever possible.
If you’re only able to work these short 2-hour shifts, it’s going to take awhile… and initially you want to just do what you’re assigned, be helpful wherever you can be, and get to know the staff. When you have been there awhile, you’ll start getting a feel for the workload, the down times vs. the hectic times, the occasions when you’ve got good openings to chat people up vs. the times when attempting to strike up a conversation will get you snapped at or ignored.
A great way to see stuff is to volunteer to be a patient’s support person. Even adults can face things like suturing with a lot of trepidation and a friendly voice can help them through it. The parents of kids undergoing exams or procedures will need support. That’s something the ER staff is generally stretched too thin to provide, but it is very helpful.
It’s great to hear you so enthusiastic about your start. You are going to have a good experience in both these settings, I think.

I hope you enjoy the ER. Emergency medicine is my love. I got addicted as an EMT. Once you’ve been around the ER for awhile, you will get a feel for who is open to conversation and who isn’t. Just play it by ear for awhile. Get a feel for when a ER is “busy” and when it isn’t. To an outsider, a high volume ER may seem “busy” when it isn’t busy at all to those working. Be flexible - if someone asks you to do something that will keep you there beyond your scheduled time, try to do it if possible. It will help convey the impression that you are there because you really want to be there and not just there to collect volunteer time.
I’m sure after you’ve been around for awhile, and people are aware that you are really interested in learning, you will get plenty of opportunities to see things. I have been asked several times if I wanted to watch and/or help with a procedure in the ER.
Good luck!

Dear Mary and Amy,
Thank you for your thoughtful replies. I will keep your sound advice in mind. Getting to know the pace and “faces” of the ER will be interesting.
Thanks once again. Kind regards…

It’s hard to do especially as a volunteer but when I worked on a study in the ER, hands-down the best way to make friends with ER staff was to work overnight shifts. Plus the people on overnights are more fun anyway. You might also want to consider bringing snacks to the lounge although don’t start with that right away b/c that is obvious ass-kissing until you know people a little bit. If you’re going to the cafeteria or the vending machine ask people if they want you to get anything for them (with their money, not yours–again, it’s just about being nice not about kissing up).
In the end, though, you’re absolutely right–it’s just about taking time and getting to know folks over time.
Good luck! The ER rocks.

Hey there,
I’ve been volunteering in the ER for two years (2 different ER’s) and I totally agree with what everyone’s said here. It’s a great experience. The first year I found kind of boring actually, because I didn’t know anyone really well. But at some point, it started to get really interesting, once people there knew me better.
I haven’t ever gone out of my way to get noticed there. I just have always done my job and tried to fill up the time being as helpful as possible. It pays off. The nurses and EMT’s have been asking me for lots of help lately (I wrapped a cast around someone’s arm a few weeks ago!), and even some of the doctors will say hi and so forth. But I try not to be pesky. When there’s nothing for me to do, I just sit around, and if others are bored we might talk, but I never stick my nose into anything.
All this is great for me, because when I fainted a few months ago while watching the nurse put some stitches in, people already knew me! I would have been much more embarrassed if it had been my first time there or something. I have also noticed that there is a distinct hierarchy in the ER, and it’s not based on titles. Anyone who’s annoying gets a bad rap quickly. So it’s good to just get to know the place and be easygoing, I’d say.
Well, good luck!

I am also in Boston and did some volunteering here. I was in the Ultrasound unit 3 hours once a week. It was fascinating! After a few shifts when the sonographers saw that I was pretty “with it” (I work full time in a hospital, so I wasn’t a newbie) they would ask patients if we could watch their scans and they would tell us what was going on, what they were looking at etc. It was a great experience because they showed us how the machines worked and took us to the floors to do portables on the non transportable patients. All in all, they treated us with a great deal of respect and it was really quite fun. I think they realize that a lot of volunteers are looking at med school and don’t just want to sit there and perform some meaningless task. I did have a short amount of time in the ER, I didn’t like it as much, only because it was extremely busy and they didn’t have a lot of time for volunteers. When things would go crazy you were pretty much just supposed to stay out of the way. I did get to see some interesting things, but I didn’t get the same kind of involvment as in radiology. I guess it all depends on how often you are there and whom you get to know. Best of luck!

Thank you all for your replies. OPM is such a wonderful resource, and the feedback I receive means a lot! I continuously recommend this website to non-trad folks I meet in my daily life.
Thanks to all of you, I’m equipped with great pointers about volunteering in a hospital!

I have to agree with Joe about the volunteering at nights. As an EMT, I have always enjoyed working night shifts more than days. Like he said, the night crew people tend to be more laid back. The other plus is that all the really weird stuff tends to happen at night. (Not always, but usually).


Current/past volunteers in the ER - have you had similar trepidations as me? How have you overcome them?

I just started volunteering recently, and I have them big time. A lot of mine has to do with the fact that I’m going into a situation where most of the volunteers are 75+ years of age. That makes the atmosphere here “different”. Things tend to have a “formal afternoon tea” feel. I’m hoping that once I get to ER, things will be different.
Oh, I explained my goals to the volunteer coordinator and she was very excited. She said that she’s probably going to move me all over the 2 hospitals (St. Vincent Infirmary/St. Vincent Doctor’s) just so I can have a lot of exposure.

I’m currently volunteering in the ER of my local hospital. I work for four hours either Friday or Sat. night…from 8-midnight. I picked this schedule because I work full time and have young children…it seemed to be the least disruptive. However, now I’m glad I’m working nights and would probably still choose it even if I had more flexibility.
Like an earlier poster, most of the volunteers are either retired or high schoolers. Also, virtually all of them work during weekdays or on SaturDAYS. The night shift is appreciative of having a volunteer with them. I’m the only volunteer in the hospital during my time.
Re: trepidation feelings; been there too. It takes awhile for the staff to get to know you and for you to not feel “in the way”. You’ll find some are more open to talking to you and letting you participate. I’ve let them know I’m willing to help with patients on all types of procedures, but I waited awhile until I said that. I wanted them to get used to me being around first.
I’m definitely enjoying it more now than I did when I first started.