Marilena Hadjittofi currently volunteers befriending patients on the Red Cell Haematology floor at the UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre. She’s a a third year Psychology student and volunteers at the hospital once a week.
What do you do as a volunteer? Describe your typical session.
What I really love about my shifts is that they are never really the same, there is a lot of variety in the things I do and the people I get to meet. My main role is to befriend patients on the Red Cell Haematology floor in order to improve their experience when attending appointments or clinics. Patients at the Red Cell Haematology have a chronic illness, such as thalassaemia or sickle cell anaemia. This means that they are bound to the service for basically their whole lives, as they have to come in for regular tests and to get their progress checked. I generally talk to patients about the volunteers’ role, events organised by MacMillan that they can join and other services available to them. If patients have a complaint or a comment about the service then I can pass this on or direct them to someone that can assist them. Some patients might express interest in matters such as art and so on, so I try to find events that they can join and are suitable for them. Recently, we have also been carrying out a survey to see how patients feel about the services and the volunteers as well.
What were your first impressions when you started volunteering?
My initial impression, especially after the first session, is that this was not just going to be a fascinating experience, but also a very challenging one. Each patient is different and a vast majority of them come in from different cultural backgrounds, with different beliefs, different expectations and they are all unique in the way they approach you as a volunteer and in effect how they will be approached by the volunteer. Familiarising yourself with the patients however is only a part of the whole experience. It also became clear that liaising with the team would also be an integral part of my role to help the patient’s experience in the service.
How do you feel about it now?
After several months of volunteering, I can now see how much the role has taught me and I really appreciate it. The role involves a lot of team work with everyone there, as well as the other two volunteers. I find that self-reflection and improvement are integral parts of the role and I really enjoy having discussions with my colleagues on their experience and learning from each other. I find the role extremely rewarding and I feel that it doesn’t only help the patients, but as a volunteer I take a lot away from it as well. I particularly like the fact that the role is evolving as we are adjusting it according to the patients’ needs and feedback to suit the unit as much as possible.
What’s the best thing about volunteering?
Volunteering, contrary to what a lot of people believe, is a really amazing bidirectional relationship. Indeed, you devote time in helping others, making their waiting time a bit more enjoyable, helping them out, listening to their worries and being a familiar face to chat with. On the other hand though, you gain a lot, you learn more about people and how to approach them, how to be sensitive with what information you receive but you also learn more about yourself. With each person you meet, you get to see things from a different perspective and you learn to respect what other people feel and think. I also really enjoy the freedom we have as volunteers to come up with our own ideas on how to improve the service and how to organise events, something which we can then discuss with our supervisor and then put into motion.
And what’s the most challenging thing?
As a third year, I would say the biggest challenge is balancing the volunteer role and my academic demands. Studying can be quite hard and time consuming and sometimes it might be hard to also adhere to my volunteer sessions. Having said that however, I truly find it helpful to attend my sessions, it takes your mind off the heavy demands and you actually feel that you are not just using your time to study, but also to do something you really enjoy.
Apart from that however, a challenge is of course dealing with some potentially difficult situations with patients in the unit. All patients are struggling with a chronic condition and each person deals with it in a different manner. They have different expectations from the service and as a consequence different expectations from the volunteers as well. We sometimes have to deal with more vulnerable individuals that are in a more sensitised state and particular care is required when interacting with them.
How has volunteering changed you?
I feel that in many senses, volunteering has made me more attentive to peoples’ needs as well as my own reactions to them. Often when we find ourselves in a conversation, we tend to look at how the other people react and respond and we forget that we are actively playing a role in the interaction. As a Red Cell Volunteer, I found myself observing my own reactions and also catching myself often making mistakes, something that I would later reflect on and try to improve on. I also feel that this volunteer role has made me more responsible but also gives me the freedom to introduce new ideas to the team in ways that we think we can improve the service.
What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?
As a Red Cell volunteer you might not see a patient for several weeks or months, so for patients we rarely see I would say that we have helped make their waiting time for an appointment a bit more comfortable and enjoyable. I think the biggest difference I feel we made as volunteers is with patients that find themselves in the hospital on a regular basis and have to go through different procedures as well. I think we have now become for several patients a familiar and friendly face around the unit, someone who they feel they can talk to and ask for when they are in the hospital who can make their experience of the service more positive. In fact I think it’s one of the most rewarding feelings when you hear a patient has been looking for you or when patients recognise you and want to talk to you after your first meeting!
Would you recommend the project to anyone else? If so, why?
I would recommend this project to anyone that wants to help people and also get involved with a great organisation such as Macmillan. Volunteers have a lot to gain, they meet a lot of new people and make new friends and most of all, you never feel like your time is wasted and it’s a continuous process of learning and improving your skills. The role is very well supported and supervised, not just by the Macmillan service but also by the Clinical Psychologist at the unit who makes sure we are all happy with our roles but that we are also fulfilling all our duties.
UCH Macmillan Cancer Centre have a great selection of volunteering opportunities for UCL students to apply for – email Oliver Peachey to find out more and check out our directory for other health-related volunteering opportunities.