For some students applying to medical school, volunteering is just another item on their pre-med checklist they need to cross off. They’ll turn up to the hospital, fetch a few blankets and push a few gurneys, all the while watching the clock and worrying about that o-chem final they still need to study for. When it comes time to write their personal statement, they’ll make a few remarks about ‘commitment to service’ and ‘making a difference’, then, satisfied that the volunteering box has been sufficiently checked off, move on to the next medical school prerequisite that needs tackling.
This attitude is somewhat understandable. While volunteering is a noble undertaking, very few recognize just how difficult it can be, particularly in hospitals, and particularly for busy pre-med students with a lot of other commitments to deal with. After meeting rigorous application requirements and competing with hundreds of others for a position, volunteers are thrust into unfamiliar environments—sometimes with little training—and expected to be proactive and competent. Often volunteers must make work for themselves, initiating conversation with patients and anticipating their needs. They must know the limits of what they can and cannot do, and when dealing with preoccupied medical staff, constantly straddle the line between help and hindrance. They don’t have much sway either; in the hospital hierarchy, medical volunteers are so far down the totem pole, they’re practically below the surface.
But underestimating the significance of your volunteer experiences is a mistake. A friend of mine once told me that in order to enroll in our local hospital volunteer program, he first had to clock 100 hours in the gift shop. Before they would even think of granting him the opportunity of emptying bedpans upstairs, he would need to spend weeks rearranging greeting cards and selling stale sandwiches in the foyer. I offered my friend commiserations for what seemed to be a gargantuan waste of time, but he insisted that the gift shop was turning out to be one of the best volunteer experiences of his pre-medical career. What seemed to me a distraction was for him an incredible opportunity. Every person who came into his shop, he told me, whether physician, family member, patient or nurse, had a unique story to tell, and he would do his best to engage with each of these customers. After encountering his positive, inquisitive attitude, these individuals were willing to open up to my friend, to stop by and provide a human touch within the otherwise faceless monolith of the hospital. He grew more confident inside the hospital setting, more aware of the medical community within and gained insight into the inner workings of hospital life.
Eventually, one of the physicians who came into the shop every day for his stale sandwich recognized my friend’s enthusiasm and curiosity. As soon as the 100 hours were up, the physician invited my friend to work in his lab, and eventually served as one of the letter-writers who helped him gain a place at a top medical school.
This story taught me the importance of paying attention to my volunteering experiences. Volunteering became a job with its own skillset and a unique sort of salary. Rather than being paid in dollars and cents, I found myself rewarded with rare experiences and opportunities, and like a real career, the more time I spent honing my volunteer skills, the more of this ‘income’ I could hope to generate. Stepping outside my comfort zone almost always rewarded me with a new experience, whether I did this by asking questions of intimidating medical staff or by reaching out to a particularly troubled or taciturn patient. Staying late and taking on extra projects yielded opportunities to meet new people and see new things. I developed a positive attitude that not only brought comfort to my patients, but also caught the attention of my fellow volunteers and supervisors. I found that above all else, by treating my role seriously and recognizing my own strengths and limitations, by paying attention to what I learned everyday (I’ve said it before: keep a journal!), what I struggled with, what moved me and what repelled me, I began to better understand the role of the physician in modern medicine, and my own personal motivations for choosing this career.
Volunteering demands a unique skillset that develops over time. Halfway through my post-bacc program, I realized that my exposure to medicine was incomplete. I had my heart set on pediatric medicine, but I questioned if I could ever really help a family deal with the grief of a dying child if I had never experienced it. I began volunteering at a pediatric hospice. As you can probably imagine, this was a pretty terrifying prospect. I remember standing in the facility’s administration office on my first day, paralyzed with fear, willing myself to cross the threshold and speak to a child whose name, diagnosis and fate lay neatly printed on a chart behind me. Many of you can probably recall moments in your own volunteer careers, standing frozen by a bedside or before a crying family member, frantically searching for your next move.
But aren’t these moments exactly what we signed up for? Volunteering equips us not only with pertinent tidbits and anecdotes for our personal statements and interviews, but also with resilience, adaptability and composure. It teaches us not only how to talk and what to say, but also when to talk and when to say it. It allows us to find our weaknesses, to iron out the creases in an environment where a mistake will not usually be harmful. Volunteering is your practice run at a career in healthcare, and your time to be self-critical and evaluative, but also brave.
Many years from now on your first day of residency, you may find yourself standing on a threshold, paralyzed, casting your mind back to everything you learned in medical school. Perhaps you’ll feel a sense of déjà vu as you recognize having been there once before. And then you’ll remember how you made it through the first time, back when you were just a volunteer.
About Luke Burns
Born in Hong Kong to a British mother and German father, Luke spent most of his childhood following his family around the world. Luke studied Politics & Sociology at University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, graduating in 2008.
He returned to the United States in 2011 and enrolled in the Mills College Pre-medical Post-baccalaureate Program in Oakland, California. Luke loves to work with kids, and has been an active volunteer at both the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the George Mark Children’s House, the first pediatric palliative care center in the US. He is also co-founder of Camp Kitchen & Harvest, a non-profit organization that teaches children in urban communities how to plant, grow and cook their own food.
Today, Luke is an M.D. candidate at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. He hopes to continue working with children and to one day serve them and their families as a pediatrician.