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  • The challenges of volunteering in the NHS

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    In this blog, Imagen Gowan* writes about her experience of volunteering at a Macmillan Information & Support Centre at her local hospital. She explains what compelled her to start volunteering and what her role involves, as well as exploring some challenges that volunteers in the NHS face. She identifies the need for more training, and greater efforts to preserve morale and a sense of belonging amongst both staff and volunteers.


    When I was a teenager our psychology teacher asked the class if any of us had a word or phrase that really frightened us. A big burly man in his fifties, the teacher openly shared that his dreaded words were “heart attack.” Apparently, whenever he heard someone say this phrase his heart would start pounding and he’d break out into a sweat. He was terrified of the concept.

    Somehow this brought me comfort. I knew immediately that mine was “cancer.” Up until that moment I thought I was the only person in the world to be frightened merely by a word. I’d lived in mortal fear of this disease ever since 1982 when a thirteen-year-old girl in my class at school died after undergoing brutal treatment. I’d spoken to my parents about it but they’d been oddly unsympathetic and matter-of-fact.

    For years cancer was my secret terror. and I went through life walking around in a daze of repressed fear, imagining it was lurking inside me waiting to break out and kill me at any moment. Twenty years later, in my mid-thirties, I came across the book ‘The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer’ by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I was stunned. It laid everything to do with cancer out bare, shone a light on every aspect of the disease’s history and took away all its terrifying power. For the first time in my life I could understand the condition as an illness that can be treated rather than an overwhelming cataclysm of destruction. I could say its name out loud. I could think about it in full consciousness.

    There and then I decided I would plunge into this formerly forbidden territory and try to make amends for being unable to do anything for my friend at school. I would work for Macmillan, and every day say the word ‘cancer’ and not be afraid. I wanted to enable other people directly affected by the disease to be less afraid too.

    It was another fifteen years before I had the opportunity. But after my children were settled in school, I finally did just that and decided to volunteer for Macmillan. I’ve now been volunteering at the Macmillan Information & Support Centre at my local district general hospital for four years, and I am part of a core team of five volunteers and two healthcare professionals with backgrounds in oncology.

    We are fully occupied seeing patients at all stages of their cancer journey, and their concerned relatives and friends who are also often deeply affected. We stock leaflets about every cancer there is and take referrals for people wanting financial help, which we pass on to the relevant local council department. We also inform people about where to get practical items such as beds, wheelchairs and other mobility aids, and help for side effects from treatment such as hair loss, fatigue or breathlessness. Sometimes people just need to cry or talk things through in privacy with a sympathetic listener. Generally speaking, I feel able to answer a good percentage of the questions patients ask. I can lay my hands on literature about even the most obscure cancers and lesser-known treatments and side effects.

    However, I don’t feel I’ve been trained enough, if at all, for those occasions when patients arrive in a state of high emotion. Ideally, they need to talk to a professional counsellor, but instead they have me. I do my best, but I don’t feel I have adequate techniques or knowledge to deal with these kinds of situations confidently.

    Ultimately, I don’t have any answers; no one does. I can only listen sympathetically and give people the space they need to deal with their emotions. I wouldn’t feel happy to do this without my manager being in the centre at the same time, and luckily this is almost always the case.

    Patients often telephone the centre with medical enquiries because they say they can’t get through anywhere else and they’ve seen our number on the internet. The official appointment and enquiry line for the Cancer Centre next door to us is invariably engaged and if patients do manage to get through it’s usually only to an answer machine. That’s often full, so they’re unable to even leave a message. In these cases, I explain that I am not medically trained, I’m “just a volunteer” so cannot directly answer their enquiry, but I’m able to take down their details and pass them on to my colleague, who will in turn pass them on to the right person to get back to them. These moments are always unsatisfying, but this is, I think, a by-product of services being overstretched and too busy, with not enough staff to handle the volume of work. And such is the repeated story throughout the NHS in 2022, although it has been like this for many years.

    By volunteering I do my tiny little bit, and thankfully this is also the repeated story throughout the NHS. Without us, I don’t think the hospitals would be able to provide half as good a service to patients as they currently do. Morale and camaraderie amongst hospital staff and volunteers is an essential part of the service—it’s what makes people want to contribute, it makes us feel part of a team, part of a large organisation that will look after us (staff and volunteers equally), as well as the patients. It gives us the feeling that everyone is working together for a common good, that we’re all on the same side, and have shared issues and challenges. It helps us see that we can make a difference. Post-pandemic, this is at risk, and, if not attended to, it could result in a depletion of both — just what the NHS does not need at this crucial time.

    At the Information and Support Centre where I volunteer we are lucky. The nurses, doctors, cleaners, tea ladies and healthcare workers treat the volunteers with respect, as we do them, making us feel included and seen. Our manager surprises us every Christmas with a ‘thank you’ box of gifts and a card telling us how much we’re valued, and the Voluntary Services Team ensure we are well looked after and can go to them with any queries or problems. I didn’t expect any of this when I signed up, but I must admit it makes the whole experience extra rewarding. It’s just a little added extra to show how much we’re appreciated since we don’t get paid.

    If other hospitals haven’t yet put in place something to make the army of often unseen volunteers feel appreciated then this is definitely something they could look at.

    Are you an NHS volunteer? We'd love to hear about your experiences, please share them in the comments

    About the Author

    *Imagen, not her real name, is the author of an anonymous blog, Coronavirus Diaries, which explores life during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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