The sun is rising. Not on the shores of San Juan, not on the coast of Los Angeles, and most certainly not on the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. No, I did not travel to any exotic location over winter break. Instead, I took the opportunity to rack up clinical health hours.
As any pre-health major knows, free time is only to be used for building up your resume. So when faced with the prospect of a completely free week, I had to quash the desire to simply relax in 80-degree weather and forget about anything school or stress related. I forced myself to see the break in terms of hours that could be attained: six or eight-hour shifts in a hospital meant a total of forty-eight hours per week. Instead of volunteering weekly for over a month, I could get those hours over winter break! It was that calculation that convinced me my winter break would be best spent in a hospital in Brooklyn, New York.
I did watch the sunrise every morning, but that was because my shift began at 7 AM. Maimonides Hospital assigns eight-hour shifts instead of the traditional four-hour (or less) volunteer hospital shift, due to its unique Companion Training Program. Companions are trained to feed any patient that may require assistance eating and to carefully observe patients for any aggressive or suicidal behavior. These qualifications mean companions are usually assigned to elderly, post-surgical or disoriented patients. While my responsibilities seemed daunting, I was excited that it was more than just fetching water for thirsty patients.
Proudly wearing my volunteer jacket and badge, I walked into the staffing office and was told that my first day would be spent in the Oncology ward. I was assigned to a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s who, I was told, had a habit of wandering about and knocking things over. Although the patient repeated the same questions multiple times, I was able to learn about her history. It became fairly obvious that her long-term memory was intact but her short-term memory was faulty. While my patient likely won’t remember me, I did feel accomplished that she never wandered or knocked anything over while I was at her bedside. After completing my shift and disinfecting myself, I settled in for an early 10 PM bedtime.
My next day involved caring for an elderly man who had been transferred from his primary healthcare facility because he had abruptly stopped eating. Doctors and nurses urged me to try to make sure he ate his meals. My patient was extremely withdrawn and somber, hardly engaging in conversation. But when it came to lunchtime I somehow helped him eat the entire meal. I didn’t know it was possible, but feeding someone had never felt as fulfilling as it had previously. I proudly told the nurse my patient had eaten an entire lunch. In fact, later that day he was in good enough shape to be discharged from the hospital.
Despite my success, I didn’t feel like I had bonded with my patient. After my second day, I began to question if this opportunity made me any more willing to go into healthcare. I had dealt with two patients that were seriously suffering and hadn’t been able to really connect with either of them. I would have to see how the rest of the week would go.
On day three, I met my kindred spirit. My patient was an elderly woman with severe arthritis who was recovering from a fall. From the moment she started talking, I’d felt as if we’d been friends for life. I learned about her life, and she shared her views on everything from politics to secret recipes. Eight hours passed quickly for both of us. I walked out of the hospital smiling, confident in my choice of future career. Yes, I said to myself, it’s definitely worthwhile for the good ones. And my patient had been a great one.
On day four, I was responsible for a returning alcoholic who only spoke Polish. I was warned that he tended to try and walk about but his feet were unable to support him and he was very prone to falling. After exhausting my Polish vocabulary (I only know two words), I decided to use Google Translate to try and communicate. Though my patient still responded in Polish, I was able to understand that he thought the nurses talked too much and that no one had offered him a cigarette. I’ll never know the full extent of our conversations, but I was reassured that my patient had stayed off his feet.
Day five brought me another “good one.” After a below-the-knee amputation, my patient described how he had been active in mandating many of the laws regarding special needs children and their education. He told me about his travels through Africa and his time working at Fox Studios. After detailing his fascinating life story, he promised to send me flowers and attend my college graduation. Day six was a pretty slow day at the hospital so I was able to visit previous patients and see how they were recovering.
In six days, I had seen various cultures, diverse patients and their families, and met with a variety of healthcare professionals. For the sake of the reader, I will not detail how many bodily fluids I came in contact with. At times, it was incredibly stressful, but nothing compared to the fulfillment of knowing I had eased someone’s pain, even if only temporarily. Oddly enough, by the time I returned to school, I felt recharged. But for next winter break, I’m considering volunteering at a hospital in an exotic vacation resort.