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As I recollect my experience volunteering at the Whittington Hospital with the charity Kissing it Better, I’m reminded of the inspiring and unbelievable moments of human perseverance and strength I witnessed. However my expectations prior to beginning this role were the contrary. I entered the hospital with the idea that the experience, whilst rewarding and educational, would be somewhat troubling and perhaps even harrowing. Nonetheless, after the first session, my speculations were completely debunked, and I’ve left with numerous lifelong memories. To watch an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease, normally bedridden with a sign looming over his bed declaring a high fall risk, suddenly arise to the charming melody of Julie Andrews, beaming as we all watched him dance with such youthful vigour and delight, was one of the most astonishing and remarkable moments of the volunteering experience with Kissing it Better. Despite the staff nervously waiting around him and watching his every move, he continued to dance heedless of their concern, stating that he had believed he’d never dance like this again. Following this spectacular show of determination, by conversing with this man, we learnt that he was a pianist who had taught music for many years. His passion was music and we had just provided that, and the clinical and inevitably impersonal setting of a hospital ward was had been transformed and the atmosphere had become one of thrill, excitement and nostalgia. We joined forces with a professional singer on the wards on many more occasions, and we regularly witnessed patients suffering from dementia murmur, hum, or sing out each note and lyric of these songs was always phenomenal; routinely silent people radiated elation at the familiar sounds of their childhood. Being at the hospital allowed me to observe resilience and the act of overcoming and defying physical impediments was inspirational.  

Our team from Highgate wanted to volunteer for a multitude of reasons, from gaining experience in a healthcare environment, to improving our communications skills under challenging circumstances. Yet the primary motive that united us all, regardless of age or gender, was the genuine desire to improve the quality of life of the patients and give back to our local community. Volunteering in the ward of people from innumerable nationalities, religious denominations and socioeconomic backgrounds was certainly educational. It provided us an extraordinary opportunity to converse with people we may otherwise never have had the opportunity to meet, and to hear a variety of stories – enough to fill a library! One week we’d hear stories from a renowned international translator, the next war stories dominated, but the tale of a man claiming to have introduced Levi’s Jeans to the British general public was amusing and absolutely endearing. The sheer fun of watching these individuals reminisce about their life achievements was unbelievably rewarding, especially for the dementia patients, who would struggle to remember your face but would effortlessly recollect their life stories with enthusiasm and spark.

On one occasion, a non-verbal conversation was required of us for a deaf lady who was visibly eager to chat; one of our volunteers interacted using the sign language she learnt from a TAA a few years ago. Her patience, enthusiasm and attentiveness was fantastic and the patient was delighted. However, in the following week’s visit, the same patient who also suffered from dementia could no longer remember the conversation and was showing clear signs of distress, disorientation and panic as she frantically waved her arms. It was challenging and upsetting to witness this abrupt change; one week we had provided joy and support, but the next we were helpless to bring any comfort.  Nevertheless, it was a humbling experience, proving that, although the majority of our visits were successful and uplifting, there were occasions where the challenges prevailed. Specifically, at the beginning of the volunteering, finding the courage actively to approach people to speak to was difficult. It was sometimes disheartening moving from bed to bed without any interaction, where patients were either asleep or otherwise unable to communicate. To overcome this initial awkwardness, we planned numerous activities, from making pompoms and bunting to give away at the ward, to carol singing at Christmas, and we even had training to perform hand massages on the patients. So by the end of our time at the Whittington, conversations flowed and the challenge was stopping them when it was time to leave!

Overall, as an aspiring medic myself, this experience was unforgettable and helped me to reaffirm my intent of studying medicine. However, it was equally beneficial to the non-medics who gained excellent communication skills and learnt more about our community. The success of the volunteering was due to the determination of the teachers, pupils, and our colleagues at the Kissing it Better charity. Everybody’s involvement and enthusiasm were integral in this positive experience. It was highly rewarding, and has left us with a selection of amusing and some more thought-provoking anecdotes. However, the paramount desire is that our volunteering at the hospital made the often lonely patients feel needed, and for their days of discomfort and homesickness in a hospital ward to be uplifted and heartened by the simple act of a conversation.

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