I took a deep breath of the surrounding dense air as I arrived at the gates of the hospital I was going to be volunteering in for the next three months. I thought to myself, what will I be doing here? I did not have a clue. The title “volunteer” gives the sense of freedom to move, do nothing or do everything, it’s up to you. There is no monitoring of your productivity, your conscience is your only criticiser.
At first, the staff displayed much interest in what I may or may not try to change in their homely ward. Friendly questions are asked, smiles and attention is given. This occurs for several encounters until you learn that days later, the welcoming atmosphere may change when they are advised to alter and improve their daily habits.
You begin to learn about the patients on the ward, obtaining an overall understanding of why they’re in hospital and how your skills may benefit them. From different scenarios or incidents you begin to imagine how care used to be treated 20 years ago. Materials, knowledge, questions asked even about surroundings have created an antiquated idea in your head.
I would ask the nurse in charge, “what did previous volunteers do?”. The answer was “Previous volunteers did wound dressings, exercises for patients, sat on patients beds and talked with them” through broken English, facial expressions and hand movements. Trying to get an idea of what my role was and how I could effectively make use of my time. I looked around the ward and saw 4 members of nursing staff and 3 carers for 18 patients. I think to myself "Why so many when I am the only one appointed to dress wounds".
One carer follows me with a sterile silver tray with basic dressings that would not usually be used for such wounds, though he tries to reassure me that the “doctor advised this”; still a classic term used in healthcare practice. I am already cleaned, gloved and aproned; the doctor is not on the ward to discuss or to be questioned. These are wounds I have never seen before. Massive chronic pressure bed sores that have been spreading to the bottom of ones back, maggot infested leg wounds that have been harbouring on the streets for weeks. There is no question on whether these patients should be in hospital, only a question of how much longer they can stay before a bed needs to be freed due to the high population of patients who are unfortunately worse off.
Family begins to play an important role, as it’s always seen universally. Several patients need to be discharged, many were admitted with no idea of their date of birth, let alone the whereabouts of a family member. They have no income or home but now they have an injury – they cannot go back to living on the street, exposing themselves to more infection, further injury, and no one to care for them.
It becomes a daily habit to arrive onto the ward, complete between 6-8 dressings and support a patient with a spinal injury by carrying out rehabilitation exercises. Weeks into my volunteering I feel energised once I start to see improvement in many of the wounds and mobility of a patient; my purpose there begins to make sense. I have the overall self-regard positive feeling of helping someone in need. How great that makes me feel, only for a short while.
The staff continue to watch day in day out, they don’t add any input or involvement. My actions and reasoning seem alien to them. I am distracted by the patient’s gratefulness and smiling faces that protrude gleaming thankfulness and hope looking at my white face.
I feel a sense of wrongfulness. Something is not right, this is no longer my purpose, my role. I’m not a member of staff, and I will not be here in several weeks. What will happen when I go? Who will carry on the exercises and wound dressings?
“We cripple people who are capable of walking because we choose to carry them”
This is how most of us were taught, to care for one another, to help those in need. Our conscious believes we are selfless by taking our time to “do”, “make” and “help” those “less fortunate than ourselves”. How do we know they are? I have visually experienced happiness, people smiling, children energised, communities that become families on a scale I have not seen before. Yes, they may possess fewer things than we do but above all they are definitely not less fortunate than us. I believe they have way more fortune than we will ever have. We own and take way too much to allow our minds to be free, honest and individual.
In volunteering your image is usually one of people who are helpless, lacking skills, not knowing how to care and provide for themselves or the community. We move in, take control, build schools, churches, educate those children for several weeks, play football with them, we see them smile and leave saying to ourselves, “I made a difference”. However, who really benefits from this? The children? The communities? The English, maths and science that you may have taught those children for the last 6 weeks – they will most likely forget within two weeks, who will continue their education? The next set of volunteers that do not arrive for 4 weeks or even not until next summer? The schools and churches that you built, will they still remain for the next generation? Who will maintain these when they begin to breakdown through weather or war? You have not enabled anyone you have only helped yourself have that feeling of pride in selflessness. But really, it is not selflessness, only a brief crow to your self-esteem. Most times your consciousness does not realise this until you start coming to an end of your volunteering, when you begin to think what will happen when I leave?
Don’t get me wrong, volunteers are critical due to the low numbers applying. They may enable change but only in the short term. Temporary change which will disappear if not maintained. Even to come with or without skills, ones that enable or disable still provide an opportunity for change in the short term. One would argue it is definitely better than not at all. However; the ones that are bred into making an experience for themselves; they may even cause more damage. Communities, hospitals, schools may all wait for the white hopeful face of the volunteer to arrive to do jobs the locals could and should do. We can teach, enable, educate so they can learn to maintain that building, teach the children and teach others.
We are not “helping”. We are only allowing the problem to continue.
I begin to change my habitual tasks on the ward, communicate to the nurse in charge that I will not be doing the dressings or exercises today. I’d prefer to watch. A shift in tension arises and an exchange in Bengali occurs. The staff carry on with their daily tasks and I begin to watch at a short distance. The nurse changing the dressing notices my presences and everyone becomes quiet. I begin to ask questions as I noted there are safer and more productive ways to complete such dressings. I start to advise constructive change in their daily tasks. You then become somewhat of an hindrance in ones day, someone they must be careful around or make a quick thought to excuse the behaviour they already question or know to be wrong. They become aware of their own action, make self-assessment “Should I be doing this?”, “Is she watching me? It doesn’t matter if she sees, she’s not here for long”. You must continue recommendations where appropriate and explain why.
Even though you become disliked, more energy is used and frustration slowly develops, you need to keep hope that one person is listening, one person is understanding, one person may change and one person may encourage another to change.
Education has begun, enablement has begun. I can begin to see the flaws of care that can be improved in the ward. I only have two weeks left. The staff are doing dressings and supporting patient exercise without my input. They have had the opportunity to ask questions, become more confident in wound care, supporting patients exercises and seeing the difference in themselves. Once I leave all I can hope is that this continues.
If volunteers come to places and enable the locals to carry out jobs through education, then small changes will happen quicker. We are only prolonging the problem by completing jobs for them. We allow it to continue and do not make long lasting changes, instead focus on minor and temporary ones. Energy is used ineffectively and time is wasted. Volunteers could be used more productively with improved preparation. This will prevent a volunteer arriving to an area with poor monitoring and low productivity. Their time and skills may be wasted if not recognised or planned in advance. Even if they are given a simple discussion before arrival it could make massive changes to communities and lives. Rather than the short term and temporary changes currently made we should enable people to start to think and do things for themselves. This needs to be encouraged in volunteering advertisement; not the idealism of how you will feel and what you will get from it. It’s not about you, it’s about the people you are volunteering for. I urge people to volunteer and to use the skills you already have or learn new ones on the way. But; when you volunteer always ask yourself the question “Can the local be taught how to do this?”. If so, teach, educate, enable, encourage and motivate.