Volunteering at a Hospital: More than a Pre-med Requirement

By: Miriam Pearl Klahr  |  May 9, 2017


One of the requirements for applying to medical school is completing between one hundred and one hundred fifty clinical hours. This requirement is often met through volunteering at a local hospital. Somehow, much of the rhetoric I had been exposed to about this volunteering experience is that it is something that one does to get it over with. I was warned that the four-hour hospital shifts are mainly spent giving out orange juice and filing paper work, providing little if any exposure to physicians. The consensus seemed to be that this experience was relatively unimportant in terms of learning what it means to become a good doctor.

When I started volunteering, I found that my peers were mostly correct. Much of what I do at the hospital would generally be classified as trivial work. I refill patients’ water pitchers and bring them tea. I restock the gloves and other medical equipment and sometimes go to the hospital’s basement kitchen to pick up snacks for patients. And I rarely interact with the doctors. Yet each week, I found the work more fulfilling and have now come to view these four hour shifts as extremely important to my future medical career.

Part of what makes these four hours so formative is that they give me a lot of time to observe the dynamics of the hospital. I have developed an appreciation that a physician is only one part of a larger team that works together to meet a patient’s needs. This team ranges from the janitorial staff, to dieticians, physical therapists, social workers, nurses, physician assistants, clerks, secretaries and hospital managers. Each of these individuals works tirelessly and deserves tremendous respect for the care they deliver. As a result, I have come to value the importance of collaboration and respect that is vital to a physician’s role. I often interact with patients  who can not speak English and am beginning to appreciate the many non-medical challenges a doctor may face. Finally, I have seen how many patients are lonely and uncomfortable in a hospital setting and are too intimidated to even ask for an extra blanket or pillow. I hope and pray that I will remember these interactions when I am a physician, so that I may give each patient the attention they deserve, while trying to make it as comfortable as possible for them to express their needs.

However, the main way volunteering at the hospital has impacted me is far more personal. When I walk into each hospital room, I see a patient. But after interacting with them for a few minutes, I see a person who has a full life—someone’s mother, daughter, spouse and friend.  Volunteering at the hospital has pushed me to see beyond each patient’s frail exterior and glimpse the person they are inside. I meet immigrants from all over the world, along with men and women who have lived in Manhattan for over ninety years. The patients are extremely diverse, yet they all want the same thing: to recover and go back home. The hospital is a complex place where people can’t bring their wealth or accomplishments. All one has is their strength, resilience, sense of humor, personality and loved ones. I am inspired by the love and devotion of mothers sitting at their children’s bedsides and husbands sitting beside their wives. I am touched when patients in excruciating pain ask me how I am doing. My weekly shift at the hospital provides me with an important perspective regarding what really matters in life. It helps me remember that it is not graduate school acceptances that determine who I am, but the person I choose to be and the relationships I develop. I am reminded how precious life and especially health is, and that beyond our differences there is much that unites all of humanity. And I have also learned that there is no trivial job. Smiling at patients, asking them about their lives or bringing patients ice and pillows to slightly alleviate their pain is meaningful work and a highlight of my week.