If you've ever been wheeled from the hospital to your car, been offered a cup of coffee from a hospital cart, or been shown the way to the waiting area for loved ones of surgery patients, chances are a volunteer helped you.
Years ago, mostly women volunteered in hospitals. They often were known as the gray ladies, a term that came from the uniforms that American Red Cross volunteers wore in hospitals during World War I.
Today volunteers may be men or women of any age or background, and work everywhere from the information desk to the ER. They fill so many support roles in health care that managers call them the backbone of their facilities. Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater has more than 300 volunteers, St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa has around 400, Tampa General has 470, and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg tops them all with around 500.
Among the volunteers at All Children's is a dedicated group of USF St. Petersburg college students, called Pre-Med Pals, who visit cystic fibrosis patients twice a week to play games, watch movies, talk or just hang out. Most Pre-Med Pals are undergraduates who hope to become physicians. Visiting with CF patients fills a particular need because these kids require frequent, long hospitalizations, and so may not always get visits from family and friends. At the same time, the USF students gain valuable experience they'll never find in a science lab or classroom lecture.
Cystic fibrosis is perhaps best known as a chronic lung disease. But it also affects digestion, making it difficult for patients to get adequate nutrition. In severe cases, patients may be underweight and less physically mature than their peers.
Their lungs are prone to filling with thick, sticky mucus, making it difficult to breathe and putting them at risk for frequent lung infections. Some patients spend weeks in the hospital every few months to clear their lungs and improve their breathing. Working parents frequently run out of leave time, and can't see their hospitalized child every day, particularly if they live and work any distance from the hospital.
At 18, Alexander Dobbs knows what that's like. The Wesley Chapel teen has had CF since infancy, and is admitted to All Children's every few months for treatment. "In the hospital it can get boring," said Dobbs, who can't go to a conventional high school due to his illness and so is studying for the equivalency exams to get his GED.
"My family may come a few times while I'm here, but I'm mainly here alone." Evenings can be particularly long and lonely.
That's where Pre-Med Pals make a difference. The group of about 20 students has been active at All Children's since January. On a recent Monday evening, senior Everett Rogers and junior Keun Young Jo spent time with Dobbs talking about one of his favorite TV shows, Dragon Ball. Even surrounded by curious journalists, Dobbs and his visitors clearly enjoyed the conversation and the diversion.
Pre-Med Pals was started by Erik Richardson, a senior at USF St. Petersburg. Richardson, 24, started volunteering at the All Children's pharmacy five years ago, earned a pharmacy technician license and landed a part-time job preparing medications. While it's gratifying work, staying in the pharmacy meant he missed the interactions with patients and families he enjoyed as a volunteer.
Still he volunteered as much as he could, delivering morning coffee to parents and caregivers in patients' rooms. He got to talk to people and also experience the day-to-day workings of the hospital — benefits he thought his fellow pre-med students would appreciate, too.
"So many of us think we want to be physicians, but we have little opportunity to interact with patients and hospital staff one-on-one to see what practicing medicine is really about," said Richardson, who hopes to apply to the USF College of Medicine next year. "This could help some students confirm that this is really what they want to do."
Richardson met with the hospital's director of volunteers, who told him that CF patients especially could use visitors. He organized two-hour visits for students on Mondays and Thursdays. Now he has more student volunteers than available shifts.
Rogers, 25, was one of the first to sign up. "I've been able to visit children on other floors, too, and get experience with pediatric heart and ICU patients, so it's been a great opportunity," he said. "Plus, it never hurts to have volunteer work at a Johns Hopkins institution on a resume when you go to apply to medical schools." (In 2011 All Children's became part of the Johns Hopkins Health System.)
And if he's ever having a bad day, there's nothing like visiting sick children to set Rogers straight. "I can sit with them, play a game or just chat and walk away feeling I did at least one thing right that day," he said.
Jo, 28, who is from South Korea and has been in the United States for eight years, thinks volunteering as a Pre-Med Pal will help her decide between pursuing a career in nursing and becoming a physician. It has also made her feel a deeper connection to her adopted community. "It really touches me when a visit is ending and they don't want me to go," said Jo.
Irene Maher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.