Why volunteering in the NHS changed my life (and how it could transform yours, too)

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Whether you want to give something back to your community, learn new skills or simply make a difference to someone else’s life, volunteering is so much more than just a CV-enhancing hobby. But with spare time being something of a myth in our all-too-hectic schedules, is it worth sacrificing your evenings and weekends to do it? Here, Annabelle Collins, who works as a health and medical journalist, explains why she volunteers for the NHS every week – and the impact her work has had on both her own life and the lives of those she helps.

Would you describe yourself at busy? Until last summer I was convinced I didn’t have any time to spare. I was working a hectic job while juggling freelance writing on the side, and I had friends to keep in touch with while managing all the other trappings of living in a big city – so I was pretty convinced I wouldn’t be able to pack anything else in.

But after almost three years in the same job, with the same routine, I found myself starting to feel restless. I still enjoyed my work, but I wanted more and I wasn’t quite sure what.

I decided that rather than changing jobs or moving city, starting a volunteer post after work could be a solution. There are a huge amount of opportunities for volunteering in London, so it’s hard to whittle them down. I decided to stick to a cause close to my heart – the NHS.

As a medical journalist I write about the challenges faced by the health service every day: some make the headlines, and some don’t. Over-worked doctors and nurses often can’t spend as much time as they would like with each patient, so volunteers play an essential role in making sure the patient’s stay in hospital is as comfortable as possible. From befriending the elderly to making tea for patients in A&E and completing necessary admin tasks, NHS volunteers often have an unsung role in ensuring patients get a high standard of care.

I first heard about Radio Lollipop after a colleague starting selling the charity’s Christmas cards in the office, and I quickly decided to apply for a volunteer position. The international charity was founded 30 years ago in the UK as a one-off project, but now operates across 26 hospital radio stations in five countries. The name of the charity doesn’t convey its full mission statement – teams of volunteers visit sick children at their bedside for art therapy, reading, games or just a chat. Alongside this, they present a radio show where patients can call in and request their favourite songs.

The application process takes a long time as you have to complete an introductory lecture, application form, interview, occupational health appointment and DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check. Then on top of that there’s a full day of training at Great Ormond Street, which is one of the two hospitals from which the charity operates in London. I decided to apply to Evelina Hospital, part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. 

Three months after I initially attended the open evening, I finally started my first two-hour evening shift. Walking into the ward, wearing my new uniform and equipped with a bag full of craft kit, games and books, I re-ran my training in my head. I was anxious that I’d forget something crucial or my terrible drawing skills would be picked apart, akin to the embarrassment of Year 8 art lessons.

In reality, I relaxed into the evening, learning from the more experienced volunteers and picking up tips and tricks for what goes down particularly well among the patients (I can confirm that everyone loves making superhero masks – even the parents).

I was about three months into my time volunteering when I encountered my most memorable shift. Usually, when we go up onto the wards we encounter a mix of tiny babies, toddlers and teenagers, all with different interests and stories. The shift usually involves asking them what they want to do with us, or even making them something to take home if they’re really poorly.

The parents are almost always there too and sometimes they get involved, but our presence gives them a chance to go and grab a coffee or get some air. I didn’t realise how many parents would also want to pass the time of day with us - we never ask why their child is spending time in hospital, but they will often tell us about their day, why they’re there and if they’ve been in before. One mum showed me a picture book she had made for her daughter to normalise her hospital visits and explain what’s going on. 

However, at the beginning of this particular shift, our usual briefing with the nurses pointed us towards a boy in a quiet side room who didn’t speak any English and was completely alone. All we knew was that he had recently arrived in England from Afghanistan and had already completed two maths homework books. He was eager for more entertainment, the nurses told us.

After introducing ourselves using Google translate, we racked our brains over what to do. He was too old for some of our craft activities and the language barrier made it near impossible to find out what he enjoyed.

We started a game of Dobble – a picture based card game, similar to snap – and soon realised we could turn it into a joint language lesson. We taught him the English word for the object and in return he taught us the Farsi. He wrote down the words for us phonetically and at the end of the game we tested each other on what we had learnt – it felt like we were equal in our endeavour to learn a new language. It may sound trite, but seeing the boy laughing and smiling at the end of our session hit home the impact our visits could have on the hospital’s young patients.

I was told by the nurses  that he had been found homeless a few weeks before and was waiting for a safe place to be discharged to. I asked after him the next week and the week after, but there were different nurses on shift and they didn’t know who I was talking about. Sometimes I still think about him and his story, and I hope he found somewhere safe.

Even though there are plenty of fulfilling moments volunteering at Evelina, I still have days at work that are tiring or frustrating and mean I want nothing more than to go straight home when I leave the office.

But I know soon after arriving at the hospital those feelings evaporate, and giving up one evening a week is nothing in comparison to the difference we can make in that time. 

How to find a volunteer opportunity

Fancy doing some volunteer work of your own? There are plenty of websites available to help you find the right opportunity, from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to listings site Do-It

You could also try one of the following:

Make a friend

Provide companionship for isolated and lonely people with Age UK, through regular visits or even just a phone call.

Click here for more information.

Go guiding

The Girl Guides offer volunteer opportunities all over the country. You could commit to joining a unit as a weekly leader or assistant or opt for drop in opportunities such as working as a treasurer, secretary or photographer for a unit.

Click here for more information.

Fight homelessness

Help tackle homelessness by taking on a volunteer role at Shelter, or get involved on a more flexible basis by fundraising or campaigning for the charity.

Click here for more information.

Care for animals

Animal lovers can volunteer for a number of roles within the RSPCA, from temporarily fostering animals to becoming a rehoming co-ordinator.

Click here for more information.

Work in a charity shop

There are loads of opportunities to work in charity shops all over the UK, for organisations including Cancer Research, Barnardos, Red Cross, Oxfam and The British Heart Foundation.

Images: Courtesy of Annabelle Collins/iStock