"I work in the ER of a major inner-city hospital on Friday nights, 8 p.m. to midnight; you can't make up that sort of experience."
How I did it: My university has a "student research associate program" with a local hospital, where selected students work in the ER of the hospital collecting data for several clinical research studies, and provide very basic care to patients (when I say basic, I mean fetching blankets and water, filling out paperwork, and walking to the bathroom). I spent 2 weeks creating a masterpiece of an application, offered to take a shift most people won't touch with a stick, and got accepted.
Although most of what I do is menial drudgery, I adore spending time talking to people and hearing their stories. Last night, I had a patient with Korsakoff's Psychosis, a disease that destroys a person's working memory so that they are unable to remember what is going on around them (think 50 First Dates). Although she couldn't remember why she was in the hospital or how old she was, she could (and did) tell me everything about the 15 years she spent in the New York City Ballet, down to Mikhail Baryshnikov's obsession with riding the subway. Another night, I had a patient who was hospitalized for attempted suicide; after spending three hours talking to her about her life and why it wasn't as hopeless as she thought, I actually got to hear her to admit that maybe there were other options besides suicide. It's moments like those that I adore.
On the other side, for every great experience I get several unpleasant ones. In the 3-ish months I've volunteered, I've been cursed at, hit on, shouted at, cried on by bereaved family members, spit on (4 times and counting...), and, on one notable occasion, punched in the eye for asked a detoxing alcoholic how he was doing one too many times. And yes, these aren't as fun as the moments with nice, talkative patients, but they've taught me to have compassion for irrational people and more patience than I've ever had, and how to deal with problematic situations and people. It's taught me how tough I can be (how tough I am).
Lessons & tips: 1) Compile a list of hospitals in your area to which you can reasonably commute one or more times a week, then systematically fill out volunteer applications with each hospital (this will take a while, since most hospitals have multiple types of volunteers).
2) Follow up every 2-4 weeks until you get a volunteer position or someone specifically tells you to stop calling.
3) Lather, rinse, repeat. This WILL eventually lead to a volunteer position at a hospital.
- Make yourself marketable. Get CPR training, or consider CNA or EMT-B licenses. Someone with even basic healthcare training is more likely to get a volunteer position that someone with nothing.
- Think about the sort of volunteering you want to do (patient interaction, research, working the gift shop, etc.) BEFORE you start volunteering. Because trust me, you'll be doing a lot of paperwork otherwise.
- Stay away from shadowing. Although this last piece of advice might not be for everyone, I thoroughly recommend working as a patient care associate or a research associate over shadowing a healthcare professional if you are volunteering at a hospital because you want to interact with patients. While you may not see as many gruesome procedures or hear as many case histories as you would while shadowing, you will be able to spend more time with the patients. Healthcare professionals are incredibly busy, and spend as little time with patients as they can so that they can see and help the maximum number of patients. Which is great, but if you want to actually spend time with patients, I recommend working as a PCA or RA, not shadowing.