Last year, we asked Mail readers to volunteer for the NHS — and an incredible 34,000 signed up to our Hospital Helpforce campaign, boosting the number of NHS volunteers by around a third. Those who give up their time to help the NHS are truly inspiring, and their willingness to go the extra mile is now being recognised in the annual Helpforce Champions Awards. The latest winners were announced last Friday. If you are still in any doubt about the importance of volunteering, read on to hear some of their uplifting stories . . .
I love the feeling of achievement
A-level student Maisy Vincent, 17, from Falmouth, volunteers at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Treliske, Truro, supporting dementia patients. She won the award for the Young Volunteer of the Year. She says:
Maisy Vincent, 17, from Falmouth, won the award for the Young Volunteer of the Year
As part of our school curriculum, there’s an enrichment programme where you can choose to do non-academic activities in school time — last year, I began volunteering at the Royal Cornwall Hospital to find out how the NHS works, as I was quite interested in studying medicine.
It’s been an amazing experience, and I think the time I’ve spent volunteering has really helped me mature.
It may be surprising, given my age, that I chose to volunteer with dementia patients, but I spend a lot of time with my grandparents and feel you can learn so much from older people. I thought it was where I’d be of the most use.
I play board games with the patients and make cups of tea — but, mostly, I’ll just sit and listen to them talk. Lots of the dementia patients love to talk to someone young and, very often, it triggers memories of their own youth.
They may not remember much about what they’ve done recently, but they’ll have very clear memories of what they were doing at 17.
I find it fascinating to hear about their lives — some of them are war veterans and others have talked about what rationing was like.
Getting them to engage is very rewarding and I think it helps their confidence, too. I love the feeling of achievement when I leave, because the people I’ve spoken to are usually sitting up a bit straighter and seem chirpier. I feel I’ve done some good.
I’ve sometimes been mistaken by patients for their mum or daughter, but I don’t correct them, as it often agitates them — and there is no harm in letting them think that.
It can be challenging work, but I’ve been taught techniques to calm patients down — such as changing the subject and getting them engaged in something else.
My volunteering work — two hours every Wednesday afternoon — has taught me patience, and I’ve learnt how to actively listen to people, using eye contact and open-ended questions to engage people in conversation. I’ve also met such a wide range of people from different backgrounds.
I love being a member of such an amazing team. It’s all confirmed for me that I want to work in a field where I can help people, so I’m applying to Manchester University to study disaster management and humanitarian relief.
We live in very turbulent times, and I think these skills are going to be needed more and more. What I’ve experienced here is priceless.
My experience has proved invaluable
For four years, Clare Horn, 49, from Ormesby, near Middlesbrough, has been part of the team of therapeutic care supported volunteers run by South Tees NHS Foundation Trust. She is one of 20 people with a disability who use their experience to help patients. The team won the Celebrating Inclusion and Diversity in Volunteering award. Clare says:
As awheelchair user born with spina bifida, I’ve spent half my life in hospital — but, five years ago after three weeks stuck on a ward, I had reached my lowest ebb. I was bored and in pain, feeling terribly low and alone.
Clare Horn, 49, from Ormesby, is part of the team of therapeutic care supported volunteers run by South Tees NHS Foundation Trust
Ongoing kidney infections and hospital admissions meant that I’d had to give up the job I loved as an administration assistant for the council. Although my family came to visit, they couldn’t be there all the time — and the wonderful nurses were swamped.
Then a volunteer, Dominique, suddenly appeared by my bedside ‘for a chat’. Over the next hour, she really lifted my spirits: Dominique was almost 20 years younger than me, but her lovely warm personality meant we instantly clicked. Then, just before she left, she said: ‘You could be a volunteer, too.’
At that moment, something just switched inside my head.
I applied to become a volunteer and, four months later, in March 2015, when I’d fully recovered, I returned to James Cook Hospital in very different circumstances — joining the team of 20 therapeutic care supported volunteers and going in to do four-hour volunteer shifts two or three days a week.
The night before I started, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.
My own experience of life as a wheelchair user has proved invaluable on the spinal ward, where I often speak to patients who are in shock after accidents, in great pain, or paralysed. Many feel their lives are over.
One patient in his 40s was really struggling to adjust to being in a wheelchair and was very low when I first started visiting him. But, within three weeks, I could see a difference. We now have a good laugh and, on my last visit, I challenged him to a wheelchair race up the ward. I let him win and, by the end of it, he was in fits of laughter.
Our whole team relate to patients through their own experiences, in a unique and valuable way.
There’s Brian, who is a deaf volunteer, communicating around the wards with sign language, and Dominic, who has Down’s syndrome and is paralysed from the waist down, and, like me, talks to spinal patients.
Volunteering has made me so much happier — I missed my old job, but volunteering has given me a sense of purpose. It’s become my greatest achievement — and makes me proud of who I am.
No patient should ever die alone
Carole Lyons, 75, a former accountant from Merseyside, and Jed Barker, 75, a retired street paver, of Aintree, are part of the end-of-life team at Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool. The team won the award for Outstanding Volunteering Team of the Year. Carole says:
Shirley Bassey’s Big Spender isn’t a song you would normally associate with death. But, whenever I hear it now, it takes me straight back to a room where I held the hand of a dying man and we belted it out together.
I had been getting ready to finish after a four-hour shift in July. The manager told me that a patient was so afraid of dying he wouldn’t sleep. His wife, who’d been by his bedside from 9am until 10pm, was physically and emotionally exhausted.
When I arrived, the scene was tense. The patient’s wife looked drained, and her husband looked terrified. As she left the room for a much-needed break, I started chatting to him about music, and he mentioned a Shirley Bassey CD.
I put on the music, he started to sing and asked me to join in. And, as we moved on to other Bassey numbers, and then sang Vera Lynn together, his grip on my hand lessened. He relaxed and fell asleep.
Carole Lyons, 75, (right) a former accountant from Merseyside, and Jed Barker, 75, (left) a retired street paver, of Aintree, are part of the end-of-life team at Aintree University Hospital in Liverpool
The next day, he was moved to his own home to die surrounded by loved ones. He was where he wanted to be, and I hope some of the fear had gone.
I first began volunteering in 1968, with duties such as providing refreshments and helping patients who were confined to their beds.
Three years ago, I moved to the end-of-life team, which means at any time I can be called to the bedside of a dying patient. If I get a call from volunteer staff or the switchboard when I’m at home in the evenings or on weekends to say a patient needs company, I’ll jump on the bus and be by their side in 20 minutes.
The experience of losing my own mother in 1994 plays a big part in why I do this. Mum was reading the newspaper when I went to make us both a cup of tea but, when I walked back into the room, she was dead. I dialled 999, as I was in such shock. I’ll never forget the consultant in Casualty saying to me: ‘She died peacefully and she wasn’t alone. There was no sign of strain on her face at all.’
Now I can say the same to relatives who’ve arrived just after a loved one has died — that they weren’t alone. I know the difference that makes to the worst moment of your life.
You do feel sad sometimes but, if someone’s had a tough day, the end-of-life team support each other by talking things through. We say no patient should ever die alone, but this incredibly caring, close-knit team means we’re never on our own, either. We make sure we’re strong enough to be strong for others.
Jed says: I first realised I was a good listener when I helped to run a church youth club 30 years ago. I’m an optimistic person, and I seemed to be able to make them feel better. I enjoyed it so much I then qualified as a counsellor. I first came to the hospital as a volunteer just to get some experience of working with people, and basically I’ve never left.
We set up the End Of Life Companions group in 2012 — it was the first-ever one in the NHS and, since then, lots of hospitals have asked us for advice on how to set up a similar service. All 30 of us are volunteers and, while the work sounds draining, I think of it as an absolute privilege to be with someone in their last moments. You don’t have to have qualifications to do this, you just have to be a caring person with a big heart.
The first thing I do when I go in (I volunteer for four hours every Wednesday) is check the diary to see who needs support — if there are no requests, I’ll walk around the wards and ask the nurses, as they always have someone who needs a companion.
Most people are grateful to have someone there with them at the end, but occasionally, a patient will say they want to be alone and I respect that and leave.
Sometimes, all the patient wants is a hand to hold, but we can help in other practical ways — perhaps by cleaning their mouth with a lollipop-style sponge or, if we think they’re in pain, alerting the nurses.
One of the most rewarding things is when relatives come back and work with us as volunteers because they’ve found the support we gave them so valuable. That makes me feel we’re doing something right.
HERE’S HOW YOU CAN BE AN NHS VOLUNTEER
It’s been nearly a year since the Daily Mail joined forces with Helpforce — a charity set up to encourage people to volunteer in the NHS — for a campaign to recruit more helpers. Almost 34,000 people responded to the Mail’s call, a huge boost on top of the 78,000 volunteers already helping the NHS. While Helpforce is not taking new volunteer applications at the moment, if you would like to help the NHS you can contact your local hospital directly to ask if it is taking applicants.
What roles might be available?
Everything you can imagine that doesn’t require a clinical qualification. Volunteers are helping out in A&E, staffing hospital shops and even running choirs for dementia patients.
Is being sociable a requirement?
No, there are plenty of roles that don’t involve much chatting, from admin to delivering blood donations. You’ll be asked your preferences when you discuss available roles with the volunteer manager at your local hospital.
Am I allowed time off?
Each hospital has its own policy on volunteer hours, but all will accommodate time off or holidays when you need it, within reason.
I’ve applied but I haven’t been contacted yet
The hospital volunteer service managers work hard to contact everyone who applies, but it may take time — so please be patient.
- An update for those who previously signed up to the Mail/Helpforce campaign — for those still waiting, you can search for roles directly at: helpforcelive.community.
I’ve overcome my shyness
Pippa Gardelio, 21, is a biomedical science student and a healing arts volunteer — a partnership between the Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust and Northumbria University, which won the award for Partnership Working in Volunteering. The student volunteers provide art activities for older patients. Pippa, from Tynemouth, began volunteering in April at North Tyneside General Hospital. She says:
Pippa Gardelio, 21, began volunteering in April at North Tyneside General Hospital
At the age of 70, Joan lived alone and was proudly independent. But, when I met her in a hospital dementia ward, she was injured, scared, angry — and lashing out.
Joan had been rushed into hospital after becoming confused late at night, wandering into her garden and falling.
When I arrived for my volunteering shift the next morning, she looked terrible. Her neck was bruised and she had painful cuts up both her arms.
And she was absolutely terrified. When I asked if she wanted to join the arts group I was holding in the day room, Joan waved me away angrily. ‘I don’t want to,’ she shouted. ‘I want to go home!’
With that, she turned her chair away from me and pulled a newspaper in front of her face.
But, after I began the class, Joan edged in. Then she joined in, mixing paints and painstakingly colouring in a flower.
An hour later, she was smiling and relaxed. As we cleared away, she said: ‘Thank you, darling.’
Joan didn’t understand why she had been taken from her home — but an hour of mixing colours and concentrating her fear had gone.
The following week, when I went back, Joan was eagerly waiting to join the painting class — and, a week later, I heard that she had been discharged. I know that wasn’t down to my classes alone — but I’ve seen so many times the remarkable way that the art, music, jigsaws and chat we volunteers provide can make a huge difference to dementia patients.
I signed up to volunteer during my fresher’s week at Northumbria University in 2018 — I wanted to learn more about healthcare, as well as pushing myself, as I’m naturally shy. I started in April this year, doing one 90-minute session each week.
The university group had 23 volunteers already doing shifts on the ward, and we formed a really close-knit team.
There’s no doubt it has changed me. When I started university, I wanted to work in laboratories. But volunteering has shown me how much I love interacting with people and helping them — and how far I have overcome my shyness. I’m planning a nursing degree next.
All the encouragement I need comes from the patients themselves. When we produced a jigsaw with a picture of a local beach, one patient called Ethel remembered it and described in wonderful detail how she’d loved ice creams there as a little girl. She shut her eyes with pleasure, and I know that she almost felt the sea and the wind on her face once more.
That’s the magic of volunteering.