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National Hero Service

Meet the unpaid army of selfless volunteers on whom our overly-stretched NHS relies

By Stephanie Bell

It's called the National Health Service, but perhaps it should be called the National Hero Service. And that's not just because of the thousands of qualified medical staff working in our under pressure hospitals.

For helping out alongside them across Northern Ireland's hospitals is a veritable army of unpaid volunteers.

As the NHS prepares to celebrate its 70th birthday next month on July 5, people of all ages have been stepping up to help relieve the burden on the over-stretched staff in any way that they can.

They turn up on wards to serve meals and make tea and coffee for patients. Others offer advice and support - or provide a listening ear to those who are going through challenging times.

Every hospital in Northern Ireland operates a volunteer scheme and thankfully there is no shortage of these amazing people who are enhancing life for patients and staff alike. And they say that though it is a job without pay, the rewards are manifold.

We talk to four women who are all making a difference by offering their time in our local hospitals.

‘Patients love to talk to someone’

Rafia Hussain (56) is originally from Pakistan and has been living in Comber for 23 years. Rafia, who lives alone, works as a civil servant. She volunteers in the wellbeing clinics and wards in the Ulster Hospital at Dundonald. She says:

"I have been volunteering now with the Belfast Trust for nine years and have two different roles. Firstly, I volunteer as a befriender in the Care of the Elderly Ward of the Ulster Hospital every Wednesday from 7-9pm. My role is to keep people who don't have any visitors company.

Patients might not get visitors for a whole range of reasons - maybe their family live far away or maybe they have no family left.

I enjoy it - the patients are always so pleased to see someone and have someone there to sit with them for a while and chat. Some of them will be staying in the hospital long term and so each day can be long for them. When you visit every week, you start to really get to know people.

My second volunteering role involves taking a half-day off work six times a year to help out with the Macmillan Cancer Health and Wellbeing events in the Ulster Hospital.

I'll go along and help set up the room and meet and greet people. Afterwards, I help to tidy up.

These events are for people who have been through cancer and are aimed at helping them to live a normal life again. It's about letting them know that Macmillan Cancer is still there to support them.

Outside of volunteering I am a member of a couple of hiking groups and I would hike once a week on a Sunday which I call my play day. I'm always keen to help people explore the Mournes for the first time and interestingly a lot of people I have taken there have grown up in Northern Ireland but never actually been before.

It has always been in my blood to volunteer.

I grew up in London and my parents were very committed to helping out in the local community so it is a family trait.

When I first came to Northern Ireland I wanted to fit into the local community and I also felt it was important to give something back to the community which is why I volunteered.

I was also brought up to respect older people and I believe that as a community we don't do enough for our older people and that's why I wanted to go down that route.

Then there's also the fact that I like talking to people and I get on well with older people. Volunteering is really valuable to me - I make a point of eating healthily and looking after my body, and I see giving up my time to help others, as food for my soul.

I believe my most valuable asset is time and if I can share a little bit of it to help others I am happy to do that. Not everyone can give time, but I can. I also know that I am a good 'people person' and I've found sharing that side of my personality hugely beneficial to me too."

‘I wanted to help my community’

Alison Mitchell (41), from Londonderry, is customer services manager with Bank of Ireland at Strand Road in the city, and volunteers in Altnagelvin Hospital. She says:

"I spotted on the Western Trust's Facebook page that they were looking for volunteers

Since we are encouraged in work by the Bank of Ireland to help out as much as possible in our local community I thought I'd find out more.

I applied to the Trust and expressed an interest in working with dementia patients.

I know dementia is becoming more and more common and I also know some people who live with it. I wanted to better understand it and to help if I could.

I started volunteering in April last year, initially for one night per week. However, even though I don't have children I do work full-time and I found committing to one night every week was challenging so I now volunteer once a fortnight. That works well for me.

From 7.30 until 10pm, I go to Ward 40, where there are stroke patients and elderly patients, including some with dementia. I sit and talk to any patient who hasn’t had a visitor that day. I would also talk to families who perhaps are sitting for long hours with a loved one.

Sometimes we will talk about earlier times in their lives many years ago when the person was growing up because that tends to be where their memories are.

I also make supper for all the patients and serve them tea and toast. Also, if anyone needs special assistance I will help them.

It has been a fabulous experience, indeed I can honestly say it is one of the best things I have ever done. I never ever regret the time I spend in the hospital. It makes you think about life and puts other things into perspective. I think everyone should volunteer in some capacity — I strongly recommend it.

It’s also rewarding because you can see how the patients benefit from it. Many of them say how lovely it is to have someone to talk to and you can see how much they appreciate you taking time with them.

Outside of my work and family I also would collect for local charities and most weeks you’ll find me out doing something to support the local community alongside my hospital volunteering role.”

‘The staff helped put me at ease’

Tyra Kelly (18), from Omeath, is a studying at Southern Regional College for a Level 3 extended diploma in health and social care and hopes to go to university to train as a midwife. She has been volunteering for a year as a meal-time support worker on the Stroke Ward at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. She says:

“My parents both work for the trust — my dad is in IT and my mum is a secretary. I’ve always been interested in helping people and I had heard about volunteering with the trust and made a few inquiries and got the process going. After I’d completed some training, I went on to the ward.

I help out every Thursday between 4-6pm and I love it so much that I would never miss a week. At first I was a bit nervous but all the staff were lovely and helped put me at ease.

I am working mainly with stroke patients, helping to get their meals ready and setting up their trays. If anyone can’t feed themselves or needs help to eat, I will assist them.

Before serving tea I also get some time just to spend with the patients playing games like Snap or Connect 4. Or perhaps I will just chat to them. I think they really appreciate the help and I get so much out of it.

I’ve always wanted to work in health and social care and eventually I hope to be a midwife.

Volunteering in the hospital is proving invaluable to me for my career but away from work I also do a bit of volunteering with Scouting Ireland and would help out at camps and events.

My friends volunteer too; a couple of them help out in the hospital and some others give some time to charity shops.

I would like to think that I will continue to do volunteer work even when I am working. If I can’t manage it every week, I hope to do it when I can.”

‘I also work as a pastoral visitor’

Emma Marshall, a retired nurse who lives outside Portadown, volunteers at Craigavon Hospital at the ‘Here to Help’ desk which offers general support and advice to hospital visitors and patients. She also was the first, and believed to be the only, Hospital Spiritual Support volunteer in Northern Ireland, a role she devised herself and developed with the support of the hospital chaplaincy and volunteer team. She says:

“I’m retired seven years after spending my whole career as a nurse. I’d worked in Canada for some years and then for 20 years I worked at Craigavon Area Hospital as a general nurse in the outpatient department.

I do two volunteer jobs in the hospital. For the past seven years, every Monday from 8.45am until 11.15am, I work at the Here to Help desk in the foyer of the hospital.

We are there to meet and greet patients and guide them on where to go. If necessary, we can take them to the various departments or direct them as to how they can get a wheelchair. We also help them to check in.

People are very grateful for the service, especially elderly people or those on their own who are new to the hospital situation.

 I also work as a pastoral visitor for my church and had to do a pastoral care course. I go to people’s homes within my parish and visit them. It occurred to me one day that I could possibly bring that ministry into the hospital setting.

I spoke to the hospital chaplain of my faith and my volunteer co-ordinator and eventually the role of Spiritual Support Volunteer was created. I’ve been doing that for about two years now and meet with the chaplain every Wednesday. We have a list of patients of our faith who have been admitted and who have indicated that they would like a pastoral visit.

I will go one way and the chaplain will go another. I visit the patients on my list and I can offer a prayer, do a reading or just sit with them for a couple of minutes.

Many of these patients are frightened and don’t know what is going on; some have never been in a hospital before. We are there to support them and offer reassurance and let them know they are not alone. I spend about two to three hours every Wednesday visiting patients.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting and caring for people. I’ve done it all my life and find it very satisfying. I don’t think there were as many volunteers when I was a nurse and I know the staff appreciate any support we can offer.

I feel privileged that I am allowed to be with a patient at a time when they are facing very trying circumstances. The fact that I can be there for them and offer a few words or just hold their hand and maybe bring them some comfort is a great privilege.

At the end of the day it is also allowing me to put my faith into action by caring for people.”

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