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Volunteering in the ER
by Christopher M. Meissner

Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered how you could be of real service to others? How about volunteering in an ER? Christopher M. Meissner, a senior at Miami University in Ohio who is majoring in psychology and prelaw, spent a summer doing just that. He tells us about the hard work (and, yes, fun) that is involved in this very rewarding experience.

The doors to the trauma room burst open. EMTs (emergency medical technicians) wheel in a patient, an elderly man whose heart has stopped. While the EMTs brief the waiting team of physicians and nurses on the man’s vital statistics (heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, etc.) and transfer him to a gurney, the team begins urgently trying to save this man’s life.

As a volunteer, I thought it wisest to stay out of the way of the chaos. It was rather hard to do, though, as the team hurriedly reached for various medical instruments stored around the room. X-rays were also needed.

At times, the procedures got grisly. For example, medical personnel had to insert a tube into the patient’s lungs to help him breathe, and they had to draw blood from his neck to relieve pressure buildup.

About 15 minutes into the process, a nurse told me to run up to the second floor for some needed equipment. It was urgent; do it as fast as I could. With a rush of adrenaline, I ran up the stairs. I wasn’t even familiar with the equipment. Yet, I felt that if I took quick action, I could play some small role in saving this man’s life.

The summer after my first year of college, I became a volunteer in the emergency department at Fairview Hospital in Cleveland, OH. I chose to work a 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, four days a week.

While there were indeed some emotional life-or-death situations in which I was involved, most of the time I did dull and tedious tasks. Some of these duties included calling patients in from the waiting room, changing sheets and hospital gowns, disinfecting beds, running specimens for analysis to and from the laboratory, answering phones, running patient files from the ER to other departments, restocking medical supplies, and transporting patients from imaging (CAT scans, X-rays, etc.) to and from the ER.

Admittedly, these jobs are not the stuff TV dramas are made of. However, they have to be done by someone. More important, I always felt needed. Helping patients was, of course, most important of all. As a patient, I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate lying on a dirty bed with some weird stain on the sheet, while waiting 20 minutes to get an X-ray.

My encounters in the emergency department also echoed many lessons I learned in high school about alcohol, drug abuse, and sex. In the ER, I talked with pregnant 16- and 17-year-olds who were having serious problems. I met a middle-aged woman suffering from AIDS. I watched as drug-influenced patients went wild in soundproof rooms. I even had to help to physically restrain drunks who had just gotten out of bar fights.

Most nights weren’t that bad, though. In fact, the ER can be rather quiet at times. But never say that – in the ER, it’s considered bad luck!

Although I had my ups and downs volunteering in an emergency room, I honestly can say that it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was a premed freshman at Miami University (Oxford, OH) at the time, and volunteering at a hospital gave me great experience. Although I’ve now chosen a different career than medicine, I still reminisce about that great feeling of satisfaction as I walked out the door at 1 a.m. – and sometimes even later, if things were busy and I felt even more needed. Every night when I exited past the nurses’ station, all of them thanked me. That felt really good. In fact, I hope to volunteer again in the ER after I finish school.

I would really encourage ODYSSEY readers to consider volunteering in a hospital. There are several departments available to volunteers, and hours are fairly flexible. Every hospital has a different procedure for applying to volunteer. Usually references are required, as well as recommendations.

Be prepared to work hard – you definitely will learn a lot. Also be prepared to meet new friends and have some fun times. More important, you’ll be providing a valuable service, and I guarantee that you’ll find volunteering a really rewarding experience.

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Last modified: February 27, 2003