I was rooting through some boxes the other day and happened across some artifacts of a past life. Between jobs and with some extra time, I began volunteering at a large local hospital.
I want to mention to any current or past healthcare professional readers that this recount is taken from booze addled memory of several decades ago. I’m sure departments and procedures have changed in many ways since I was volunteering at a hospital.
The idea of volunteering at a hospital came up as I lived within walking distance from the place, I thought I’d meet some new folks and maybe make some job connections and new friends. When I was a kid I was a huge fan of the tv series “Emergency” where every week paramedics John Gage and Roy DeSoto would save dozens of lives with the good doctors and nurses of Rampart Hospital. I never missed an episode. I think secretly I hoped as a volunteer I might get a chance to shout out “STAT!” just like the heroes in “Emergency.”
“Volunteer Orientation” was in a conference room with several folks of all ages. Awful hot brown liquid, referred to as coffee, was served in small styrofoam cups, the type of vessel that makes that insipid irritating squeaking noise when people are nervously playing with it. Styrofoam coffee cups should be banned just for this noise alone.
It was here we had our photos taken and were presented with ID tags and some ugly beige coats/smocks to be worn at all times so we would be identified as volunteers. The ID tags and coats allowed us access to the majority of hospital spaces and highly discounted cafeteria fare. I used this perk quite a bit, even on non-volunteer days.
Pharmacy delivery! My thinking was it might be fun, that patients would be happy with the deliverance of drugs to them. I did that for awhile until I was almost stuck by a syringe.
Medical professional readers might point out to me that there were/are procedures put in place to guard against such a thing; a volunteer hospital drug mule getting stuck by a sharp! I’m sure procedures guarding against this were in place, however, there it was, a syringe needle poking through the paper bag as I was walking a hallway to my destination.
I went back to the pharmacy with this bag and they nonchalantly fixed the issue and I continued on my merry way. I did a few more weeks with Pharmacy Delivery before deciding to move into another department.
What could be better and more cheerful than wheeling people out of the hospital? I thought Patient Transport would be fun and it was. I’d show up at a discharged patient’s room with a wheel chair and wheel them out to a gratified family standing in the sunshine waiting for their loved one, complete with glowing halos all around.
Yeah. Sometimes that happened, sometimes it didn’t.
This one time, I appeared with a wheel chair at a patient’s room. This young woman had a broken leg and the cast was the full length of her leg to her toes. Typically, there’d be a nurse or an orderly to move the patient to the wheelchair. Those of us in the ugly beige smocks/coats, were not trained or allowed to physically move or touch the patients. For some reason I can’t remember I had to help this patient’s dad move her into her wheelchair because they were somewhat impatient and wanting to leave and there were no nurses at the nurses station or the hallways that were available.
In retrospect, I should have thrown down the Authority of the Beige Coat and waited for a nurse or orderly to help do this but I didn’t.
With Mom and Dad on their way to retrieve their car, this discharged patient and I began the short trip to the elevator, her leg supported out in front of us like a cow catcher on an old steam locomotive. We entered the elevator, backwards, and just as the doors were closing the patient uttered she was feeling nauseous.
Oh no you don’t, not on my discharge trip!
Faced with the aspect of vomiting in the elevator, I sprang to the door and blocked it open, got the patient out and then began to sprint the wheelchair back to the nurses station yelling that I needed a bucket as the patient was going to vomit. It’s here that I missed my opportunity to bellow “STAT!” as the trip to the elevator which was so short earlier now took an eternity.
The Beige Smock/Coat was not a well respected item around the hospital. We were the lowest of the low, viewed as a necessary irritation. As I imitated OJ Simpson in an airport for a Hertz commercial and yelled for a barf bucket, the nurses gathered around the station barely looked up or if they did, they looked at me like I was nuts.
Rounding corners as fast as my cargo would let me and not getting any response from the nurses, I spied a large vase of flowers on a cart. The wheelchair, my patient and myself came to a halt, I dumped the vase of flowers and water on the floor and placed the vase under my patients face just as she heaved the contents of her guts.
This got the nurses’ attention and they sprang to action.
I returned to the patient transport office then to the volunteer office and requested a different department, you know, because it’s a big hospital with lots of different things to do.
The Heat, The Action, The Big Stories; that’s where I wanted to be: Emergency Room Volunteer.
The ER volunteers sat at a desk in the waiting room and we would help people find their people who were being treated in the ER. First, we’d check a log book at Admissions. Then if the patient wasn’t found, we’d check a log book in the ER.
Entering the ER, for me, was always a mixed bag of emotions. Even though our beige smocks/coats gained us access, I always felt I was in the way, even while hiding in a corner trying to stay out of the way. This was the place where death always lurked, where injury and pain and blood were persistent company and the ER nurses and doctors were always so busy, unless they weren’t busy; I doubt they noticed my presence to be sure.
If the patient wasn’t found in the ER log book, I’d check a chalkboard and finally if the patient wasn’t there, I’d ask one of the nurses which might mean the patient might have just arrived and any news was too premature for me to relate to the Waiting Room People.
I think that anyone who wants to work in healthcare is amazing. To want to work as ER staff? I can’t comprehend that and those folks have my highest respect. I never did exchange words beyond pleasantries or asking where a patient was and if they could receive visitors; the ER staff didn’t need me and The Beige Coat cluttering up their day.
I enjoyed that tenure. I’d help people find their people who were being treated and put them in touch with ER staff who were doing the treating.
One day, several young women stampeded into the waiting room, obviously rattled and scared. As always I asked how I could help them, got the name of the patient and went about trying to find that person.
I found no record in Admissions. Great. The ER was damn busy that day and I didn’t want to go in there but I had to.
There was no record of this patient in the ER log book or the chalkboard which meant I had to ask someone. There was one particular nurse who was always friendly whenever I had a question. I never talked to her beyond a daily greeting or those questions.
As always happens when in an area of constant noise and activity, there will be a moment of quiet a moment of calm a moment of serenity and I don’t think these moments can ever be predicted.
I needed to find this patient for the folks in the waiting room so I asked this familiar nurse about “insert name” and if the patient could receive visitors.
That moment of calm happened just as I recited the patient’s name.
All activity in the Emergency Room stopped, all staff stopped talking and looked at me. I remember a pen dropping and it was louder than any ball point pen had a right to be when landing on a hard tile floor.
Imagine feeling the icy stares of a room full of folks who may or may not already hold the Beige Smock/Coat in mild contempt. Imagine being 6’2”, 200 pounds and wanting to shrink into the tile floor as rapidly as possible.
This nurse’s posture hardened as she proceeded to yell at me that the patient I was asking about was a baby and it had just died.
Death happens every hour/all day/all year. Death never stops. For most of us, we aren’t around death on an hourly/daily/yearly basis.
I stood there wishing for some type of noise, for someone to go about what they were doing, to get back into anonymity. At no point in Volunteer Orientation was the concept of death touched upon and we were not trained to deal with it.
This silence that lasted forever in reality probably went on for not more than a few seconds but in that silence, I calmly and boldly recited to my nurse friend, “Well then, get yourself out there and tell these people what has happened as I am a volunteer and I am not trained to deal with these situations.”
Actually, my words were not as calm, I’m sure I would be brought up on some sort of harassment charges if this happened now.
Back in the waiting room, I assured these young women that someone would be with them shortly, that I was not allowed to discuss a patient’s condition. Then I got a styrofoam cup of awful hot brown liquid and sat at the moldy old desk, nervously playing with that cup, making those insipid squeaking noises, trying to uphold a pleasant approachable smile on my face.
Before my shift ended, the nurse who yelled at me did come out and apologize. I thought it was nice and I told her than no apology was necessary. Shit, life, death; it all happens to everyone.
I didn’t last much longer as a volunteer, I got a job and had no time. I wonder if my ID card would still get me a big discount in the cafeteria.