I can say undoubtedly that this experience has changed my life. Speaking with full disclosure, my first day at the unit I was shell-shocked. Most of the patients were non-responsive, the atmosphere was silent with only a few moans due to the pain of being moved. In most hospitals, volunteers talk with patients and walk them around, but on this unit we would go room to room and everything was hands on.
On my first day I had to bathe and change patients. Brush their hair, apply lotion, and more… with full knowledge that these are adults, who before have done this for themselves. As a volunteer, you quickly realize that patients depend on the people within this unit to take care of their every need: from cleaning them up to feeding them. All while they are in their most vulnerable state, some are even unable to verbally communicate. The basic acts of eating and cleaning yourself is performed by strangers. This showed me the importance of hospice care, and what is expected of me playing a role in this care on the unit.
As the months of volunteering went by, I saw many patients that were unresponsive. I noticed that every week there were new patients on the unit. In the back of mind, I knew that some had died or other just came in for a brief time. I did not feel any emotions about their death or leaving. Meanwhile, at our training sessions many volunteers were speaking about how they formed attachments to the families and patients. They discussed how they felt and the kind words that were said to them. Hearing what happened and what was said, I could see that this experience changed them. I found myself thinking that something like that won’t happen to me. I was very wrong.
On my last day, I met this women who had cancer. I went to give her breakfast like any other day, and she just started talking to me. She then proceeded to tell me parts of her life story: about her horrible ex-lover, how amazing her current boyfriend is, and how much he has done for her. She talked about her Italian heritage and cooking. I shared my own attempts at cooking for the first time.
What shocked me the most was that she said I was the daughter she never had. She had an abortion earlier in her life, and she truly saw me as a daughter she never had and that she loved me. She thanked me and said my eyes showed her kindness and honesty. I had no idea how to respond, I had just met this women not even 2 hours ago and she told me her problems and that she loved me. How do you respond to something like that? I still am not sure. That day I did not want to leave: I wanted to meet her boyfriend, have her teach me recipes, and talk for hours.
This experience showed me the importance of volunteering and giving your time and effort no matter how little it is. It also revealed to me that this is what medicine is really about. Before, my answer for why I want to go into medicine was because I want to help people. In reality, the people coming for treatment are at their weakest. They are sick and hurt. They are naked figuratively and physically, and as a doctor it’s your job to help them in whatever way you can. While treating them with respect, kindness and honesty.