In the summer of 2011, I signed up to volunteer at the local hospital. My first day rolled around, and I was pretty nervous. I showed up about fifteen minutes early because I had allowed time for myself to get lost in the hospital. Having my typical feeling of nervousness, sweaty palms and all, I met the charge nurse in my unit, Tabitha. She taught me typical protocol pertaining to cleanliness and told me what I would be doing.
To my distress, I found out I would be entering the patient rooms. I had to talk to complete strangers on top of hardly knowing what I was doing. Nevertheless, she showed me the nourishments and supplies I was to distribute and nearly sent me on my way. Before I entered my first room Tabitha turned to me and said, “Oh, and you should probably know that this is a trauma unit.”
What I experienced that summer was of more value than I can express. Many of the rooms I entered were inhabited with dementia patients. Physical disfigurements were extremely common. Repulsive smells varied from room to room. Some of the patients had family members by their sides, caring for them. The majority of the patients did not.
One of the patients’ guests is a woman I will never forget. She was old and frail, and she needed assistance getting to the valet four floors away. As I was wheeling her to the elevator, she spoke words that broke my heart. “My husband died on this floor a few years ago. He was in room 411.” I struggled for some words of sympathy, but nothing really seemed sufficient to express my sympathy for her pain. She went on, “We did everything together. Now that he’s gone, I don’t know what I can do without him. There’s no purpose in my life anymore.” I was on the brink of tears. Any heartbreak I was experiencing at the time felt juvenile. “I’ll be praying for you,” were the last few words I said to her as we reached the valet. I wanted so badly to be of great comfort to her.
I cannot disclose any particular patient information, but in general, there are things I think everyone should hear. There were patients there younger than me with serious drug and alcohol issues; they had nearly caused their own deaths. Many adults lied in their beds alone. They had no one to talk to. Although many of them were no longer in their competent minds, I think that many of their cries and screams were true reflections of the way they felt. They may not make sense sometimes, but that is no reason for them to be neglected. Starting out as cruel and unpleasant company, many of the patients turned into jolly friends. I found that going beyond merely providing for their basic nourishment and medical needs was what my job should really be about.
I am not going to make my job as a hospital volunteer sound like something it was not. During my shift, I looked at the clock often, hoping it would go by fast. My nerves dyed down a little bit, but I could not help but cringe sometimes. While I was doing my job, I sometimes felt unappreciated or useless. At the end of the day was when I realized how much I really enjoyed what I was doing. I had been exposed to things I was uncomfortable with, but I had provided smiles and laughter for some strangers’ day. That was irreplaceable gift, and I think it was the most valuable thing those patients could have been given. Nothing up to that point had ever made me want to give up more of myself for the benefit of others so badly.