She never signed up for this.
A reader wanted to talk about her experience as a volunteer at a local hospital, a position that has become harrowing and heartbreaking in these pandemic days – not just because of the patients but the public.
She speaks not to complain or castigate but to ask for a little grace, to offer a gentle reminder that despite our differences we are all still the same species and that volunteers aren’t getting paid to take guff.
She has been a volunteer at Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho since it opened in November 2011, but her experience could just as well be that of any volunteer at any hospital across this COVID-coated country.
“Many articles have been written over the past 18 months about the heroes who have fought the COVID battle on all levels,” she wrote in an email. “The doctors, nurses, PAs, CNAs, CMAs, first responders, teachers, health officials, food service employees, grocery store personnel and so many more, but no one has acknowledged the hospital volunteers.”
So let us acknowledge. Each year, thousands of volunteers provide their time and their hearts to the hospital, working in such diverse areas as the information desk, hospice, gift shop, cancer care, surgical services, pet therapy and even the emergency room. They help in the ordering and delivering of flowers for patients. They wheel patients to and from their rooms. They serve as hospital ambassadors.
Volunteer requirements vary at each the hospital. At Rust, volunteers commit to serving a minimum of four hours a week for at least nine months and can be any age from 16 up.
For years, this volunteer worked in the gift shop, a job she says she found rewarding and interesting.
Then came COVID-19 and everything changed. Hospital visits ended, security was increased, gift shops closed and volunteers were sent home.
This March, volunteers were invited back, and the volunteer said she was willing. It felt good to be back, she said, and hospital administration made her and the other volunteers feel valued and safe.
But things began to change. Hostility that is now pervasive across the country has found its way into hospitals and against the people who had once been hailed as heroes on the front lines of a deadly pandemic. Those heroes include hospital volunteers.
“Lately, we have become the bad guys and the mask police,” she wrote. “We are called everything from control freaks to sheep.”
Volunteers at the information desk are berated for trying to enforce hospital rules requiring masks, using thermal temperature scanners to screen and limiting the number of visitors allowed per patient.
“It’s not just the volunteers who deal with them but security, nursing staff, administration and others who work at hospitals that are dealing with this,” she wrote.
(According to the Presbyterian website, only one visitor is allowed at a time, two in hospice, labor and delivery or the neonatal intensive care unit. No visitors are allowed in the COVID-19 unit. Similar visitor policies are in effect at the University of New Mexico and Lovelace hospitals.)
“It’s not easy dealing with some of the people we encounter,” she wrote diplomatically. “But there are some very loyal volunteers who have stuck it out these last months.”
That’s a good thing because not only do hospitals need these volunteers, the volunteers need each other.
“We sometimes call each other at night and cry on the phone about what we had to deal with or what we saw that day at the hospital,” she wrote.
The hardest part, she said, is when a COVID-19 patient doesn’t make it, and those who love him or her cannot be there in those last moments of life under hospital restrictions.
“Most of the time we have to tell visitors that they are not allowed up to visit a loved one who is dying from COVID,” she said. “Some understand, but it is heartbreaking.”
Volunteers are trained on how to do the tasks they are given, but no training can fully prepare them for the grief. That lesson comes from within.
“Every day we see so many visitors that are dealing with so many other things other than COVID and sometimes you don’t know what to say or do,” she said. “A hug, a word of encouragement is all we can give.”
Maybe these volunteers could use a few of those, too.
Across the country, hospital staff are dealing with hostility, threats and violence from patients and their families outraged over rules designed to protect them from the virus.
We seem so far away sometimes from those early days in 2020 when we revered the heroes of the hospital. We sent them pizzas and treats, cheered and applauded them in unison every evening. We posted signs like the one on my road that reads “Thank you HEROES.”
They are still heroes, all of these people who believe that giving back to the community also gives them something greater, who follow and enforce safety measures based on science and not selfish, misguided bilge in which personal freedom trumps the public good.
And if you are among those who don’t agree with such safety measures, there is no honor in accosting or belittling those who do.
The volunteer never signed up for that. But she stays anyway.
“Just tell readers to treat us like they like to be treated and that we are there to help them and listen to their concerns,” she said. “I have the utmost respect – more so now – for wait staff, cashiers and anyone else who works with the public. These have been very trying times and hopefully we will be back to normal someday.”
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