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May Spotlight on Service: Volunteering at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, TASIS England juniors Bella Mia and Flo played their part in the community in an exceptional way – by becoming volunteers at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London. Service Ambassador Seo Hee (Grade 11) spoke with them to learn more about their remarkable service.

Both Bella Mia and Flo began volunteering at the hospital in October 2020. Asked what led her to take on this service project, Bella Mia says, “I have a huge interest in medicine. I wanted to see what it was like to work in the NHS and get an idea of what the medical field was like. I also wanted to make a difference during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spending time with patients and aiding doctors and nurses felt so rewarding and was something I truly wanted to do.” Sharing that interest in medicine and a desire to help during the pandemic, Flo adds, “I wanted to take on a role during the pandemic that could make a difference, even if it was only a small one.  Given that this role was in an environment which was so important due to the pandemic, I immediately applied to volunteer.”

Prior to becoming youth volunteers, both students underwent rigorous training, including a session with a senior volunteer about responsibilities, expectations, and hospital functions. In addition, Bella Mia shares, “I had to complete around 20 online modules that went into more detail about hospital protocol, CPR, and our responsibilities.” Bella Mia and Flo also helped provide vaccination support during the rollout of the COVID vaccines and received specialized training for this role. Flo says, “The training process was thorough, leaving me feeling prepared when I came in for my shifts.”

During their volunteer shifts, Bella Mia and Flo worked as responders, making runs through the hospital, delivering items from the pharmacy, and transporting patients. As ward volunteers, they helped patients to feel comfortable by keeping them company, offering food and water, and providing feeding support. Both students also helped with the organization of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

Of COVID-19 mitigations, Flo and Bella Mia explain, “The hospital had very strict measures in place, allocating zones depending on possible exposure to patients. In each zone, different measures of PPE were required and constantly replenished. Most of the time while working with patients, we were required to wear an apron, mask, and gloves. After being in contact with a patient, contaminated PPE was appropriately discarded, and new PPE was donned. These requirements were constantly adjusted to keep up with the new mitigations each week. We were also part of a testing scheme for staff at the hospital, requiring us to be tested for COVID-19 twice a week, keeping ourselves and at-risk patients safe.”

Volunteering at a hospital during a worldwide pandemic certainly brings with it its challenges.  Flo reflects, “The main challenge for me personally was the ward shifts, which bore a particularly tough emotional toll. Many patients had not seen their families in months and wore sorrow on their faces, which I noticed particularly when I volunteered over the Christmas period. The emotional and physical toll on nurses and doctors alike was also evident throughout my time at the hospital, which was overall quite confronting. Although this was exceptionally challenging, it left me with an even greater sense of empathy and gratitude towards the hardworking doctors, nurses, and staff of the NHS.”

Speaking of the challenges she faced, Bella Mia says, “When working as a volunteer, your role is to make patients feel comfortable and happy. However, the environment of a hospital can be very saddening at times and I found it difficult to be happy when I saw so many patients sad and/or in pain. I found it challenging to shield my true emotions and just continue to be happy, but in reality, I felt terrible for the patients.”

Of their favorite moments at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, they are quick to point out several. Bella Mia remembers, “When I was working on the Surgical Ward, I met an elderly lady who was about to go into surgery. She was extremely nervous and sad because she wasn’t able to see her family due to the pandemic. I sat down next to her and we had a lovely conversation about her career as a journalist. I learned so much from her and she gave me lots of life advice. Before her surgery, she thanked me and told me she loved my company. That moment felt very rewarding. I went to the hospital the following week to see how well she was recovering.” 

A special moment for Flo took place during her first weekend as a volunteer on the Stroke Recovery Ward: “I was having a conversation with an elderly patient who openly shared her wisdom and life stories with me, wearing the biggest smile on her face. Towards the end of our conversation, she informed me that she hadn’t seen her family in months due to the pandemic, and she was eternally grateful for my company as I reminded her of her granddaughter. The concept of being able to provide comfort for even just one patient during the pandemic warmed my heart, and the feeling will stick with me forever.”