Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Volunteers – please handle with care and proceed with caution.

There is an article in the Times Health News today, focussing on London Hospitals’  ‘fight for survival’. The piece starts with an endearing description of an elderly couple who work as volunteers at their local hospital. Apparently the 83 year old drives the buggy that carries patients around the facility while his 75 year old wife spends hours providing companionship to cancer patients.

The point (I think) of this piece is to stress that hospitals rely heavily on such volunteers. While this example of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is heart warming, I suspect that a slightly less Utopian scenario is nearer the truth.

Volunteers in hospitals can be an absolute nightmare. There – I’ve said it. Call me heartless but I suspect that at least half of these well-meaning souls are more trouble than they are worth. A health and safety hazard, often a law unto themselves and a potential hotbed of germs and inappropriate behaviour, they can wreak havock on an already stretched ward staff.

When I was an inpatient this summer, the kindly gentleman volunteer who brought round the water jugs looked so unhealthy and frankly, unclean, that I couldn’t bring myself to drink the water he left by my bed. On the other hand, the ladies, also volunteers, who swept into the ward and quickly made the beds were fantastic. They whizzed in with a bright smile and a no-nonsense approach and saved the permanent staff considerable time through their unpaid efficiency. These ladies were late middle age, fit and healthy and knew what they were doing.

And this should be the rule for all hospital based volunteers – properly trained and fit for purpose.

Bless the Womens Royal Volunteer Service tea ladies who man the canteens, but don’t try to get a cup of tea and a scone from their counter unless you have considerable time to spare. I swear that one of the ladies on duty in an Oxford Hospital recently must have been at least 90, was very frail and looked positively dangerous with a cup of boiling liquid.

While I accept that volunteers can provide real confort and companionship to lonely patients, (who should be identified by the ward staff), they can also be downright intrusive and annoying. Visiting a close relative in a palliative care unit one Christmas, the volunteers insisted on giving me and my daughter Christmas lunch despite our firm protestations that this was not required. The situation became even more ludicrous as lunch was delivered to us at the bedside, along with crackers! Did they really think that at a time of excruciating personal agony we would be wearing silly hats and reading jokes? It was like a scene from the darkest of comedies.

I am happy to see volunteers of all ages, working in our hospitals, as long as they are appropriately trained and carefully managed. But they cannot be a substitute for qualified and regulated staff.

Alas, I have many irritating volunteer tales and will finish with one that luckily caused my late husband great amusement at the time. As he was recovering in hospital following major surgery, a volunteer plonked herself by his bed and said ‘Are you awake deary – like a chat? Having been rudely disturbed from what had been (in his words) a lovely snooze – Bob wasn’t really in the mood for conversation but always good mannered, he humoured her. ‘What are you in for then?’ (like he was in prison?) she asked. ‘I’ve had a cancerous kidney removed’. The woman physically stepped back, shocked that this patient was clearly seriously ill. But fair play, she recovered quickly and smiled.. ‘Oh well – it’s amazing what you can live without these days..’


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