Colorado State University student Wahida Khan is thinking about a career in health care. The senior is majoring in biomedical and chemical engineering, but it wasn’t until her experience at Medical Center of the Rockies that she realized she had made the right choice in setting her sights on medical school.
While she was searching for volunteer opportunities, CSU advisors told Khan about MCR’s Emergency Room Volunteer program.
“The MCR emergency department volunteer program has been incredible for the students,” said CSU Health Professions Advisor Linda Stoddard. “It gives them a good overview of the health care industry and the culture of it, which is really good for them.”
Since January, Khan has spent three hours each Saturday volunteering in MCR’s emergency room. Her day’s duties may include stocking carts, replenishing blankets, answering patient questions or running to get something for a nurse. She’s an extra set of hands and another smiling face to help with the patients, said ER Charge Nurse Bob Olsen.
“We benefit from (the volunteers’) great service because they are so humble and enthusiastic,” added Dr. Jamie Teumer, MCR’s chief of staff and ER medical director.
But for Khan, it’s more than just helping the hospital. She’s helping herself.
“It’s allowed me to know that I’ve made the right choice of premed, but also to know that I need to work on my skills,” Khan said.
One of the toughest challenges for the CSU student volunteers — which Olsen has observed and Khan agrees with — is communicating with patients.
“Older volunteers are more comfortable in their own skin when talking with staff and patients,” said Olsen, who previously worked at Poudre Valley Hospital with its successful ER volunteer program. “The students seem to be shyer and more reserved — until you get to know them. Then what you realize is that these kids are incredibly smart. It’s jaw-dropping how mature and intelligent they are at this age.”
Khan is happy for the opportunity to improve. “This is not your typical public service volunteer position,” she said. “These people come in with health conditions and need to be comforted. Being a volunteer is a way for me to get comfortable talking to people, especially patients.”
Teumer believes it’s these experiences that benefit the students the most.
“Besides the exposure to our processes, they get a better understanding of the human side of it,” he said. “Even if they decide not to go into this profession, they’ll take those life lessons with them.”
And for some volunteers, their experiences help them decide — before they spend lots of time and money — to follow a different career path.
“We had one case where a volunteer came through the program and witnessed a trauma,” Olsen said. “That volunteer came back and said that they had learned something from it — that this was not for them. It’s a bit of an education for the students. They get a chance to see in close proximity if it’s what they want to do. It’s another tool to help them decide what’s best for them.”
Khan said she’s realized how valuable volunteering can be. Unlike a shadowing program — what she called a passive opportunity to see what a professional does — MCR’s volunteer program provides active opportunities where one can “actually help.”
“Volunteering is more about who you meet and how you change from those interactions,” she said. “I remember certain patients based on the conversations I had with them. As a premedical student, I am taught to think, analyze and interpret. As a volunteer, I get to feel, empathize and reflect. The volunteering experience teaches how medicine is much more than drugs, tests and scans.”
About 45 students are now enrolled in the MCR volunteer program. Although most work in the ER, some also volunteer in the surgical waiting room and front desk.
Because of the program’s success, MCR Director of Volunteer and Guest Services Linda Fisher recently expanded the program. She’s added more spots, hours and opportunities that better fit school schedules and provide additional help in the ER. The program’s recruitment also is based on the student’s college semester rotations.
The program accepts new volunteers in the fall, spring and summer semesters, but the current volunteers get first choice to extend their volunteer stays at MCR.
Although students don’t get paid or earn college credit, Fisher has built incentives into the program, such as being able to shadow an ER technician or nurse after 50 volunteer hours or getting to ride along with EMS after 100 volunteer hours.
“We needed to have a progressive program,” Fisher said. “Our ER program is a good example of how you must adapt volunteer programs to specific age groups. These students want to make a difference, and they want to be able to not only help meet our needs at the hospital, but to have a learning experience. It’s a partnership that benefits everyone involved.”