[In honor of the first issue since summer break, we want to showcase some of the student body’s summer breaks. Ranging from working as a camp counselor to apprenticing at a tattoo shop, these four varied narratives provide insight into different Vassar students’ interests and summer experiences.]
It is no secret that people of color are a serious minority in the world of healthcare work. My ultimate dream profession has always been to work as a heart doctor—and to successfully complete all the necessary steps that would get me there, med school and all. As an African-American, I realize not too many people in the field I aspire to look like me, but I know today more and more programs are popping up to try and change that. For the last couple months of summer, I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the best of these programs around.
The Mentoring in Medicine’s Emergency Department Clinical Exposure, Research and Mentoring Program (EDCERMP), is centered in locations around New York City. EDCERMP is minority- and low-income-based, and takes initiative to engage young people of color interested in the medical field in activities and opportunities that would better prepare them for future studies, make them more competitive for med school and provide experience behind the scenes on hospital turf.
As stated on the Mentoring in Medicine website, “College and post-baccalaureate students join a community of compassionate health care providers as they volunteer, shadow, research and learn from professionals in one of the busiest urban Emergency Departments in the country.”
We are expected to spend a certain minimum number of hours on each type of activity within a given timeframe to guarantee we make the most of the program. For example, I’ve started, and am currently working on, my 100 hours of required in-hospital volunteering. The Mentoring in Medicine volunteers—or “Lynne’s kids” as the hospital staff affectionately called us, after Dr. Lynne Holden, the president and chief executive officer of the program—has a strong positive reputation at Montefiore hospitals in urban areas as helpful, intellectual and passionate youth, so volunteering there is really a position to be proud of—even if we’re just doing the grunt work.
I worked in Montefiore’s Emergency Department in the Bronx, smack-dab in the middle of the urban city center, where the only population more diverse than the staff was the patients. On arrival, you receive a packet of information, a thorough tour of the place, scrubs and a nametag, and then they let you loose to make yourself useful.
Our most common task was cleaning and making stretchers; although it is bland and labor-intensive work, it is not without reward. The hospital literally cannot function without stretchers at the ready, since first responders and emergency personnel have no time to prepare a stretcher when they are tending a patient in critical condition. Having a volunteer whose job includes the preparation of such equipment is invaluable to other hospital staff; our work greases the wheels of the entire healthcare center. All the staff knows this—everyone from nurse practitioners to surgeons has walked through the halls and thanked me sincerely at one point or another when they see me bedding my hundredth stretcher.
We also get ample opportunity to work inside the Emergency Department itself, interacting directly with patients. That’s where the real action happens: Nurses, doctors, surgeons and loved ones are constantly bustling around spaces such as the triage center, psych corner and designated areas for short-term and long-term patients.
Things volunteers can do are limited, namely giving out blankets, pillows and, with permission, food and water, but it’s no small job in the patient’s eyes. I’ve been called everything from “a godsend” to “better than a nurse” by patients simply for giving them a pillow. We get to see firsthand how much patients appreciate person-to-person sincerity, and how important familiarity is in the healthcare field. Anyone who has spent time in an emergency room knows how long the hours get, and how irritable people become (and even if you haven’t, you learn soon enough). The professionals have such hectic and unpredictable schedules that too often they can forget about the simplest things a patient really needs: a smile. A word of comfort. A sandwich. Just taking a couple moments out of your own busy day to make a patient feel cared for and relaxed.
After an eight- to 12-hour standing shift, much of which we spent performing repetitive tasks like cleaning beds, it was easy to lose sight of our purpose. Sometimes we questioned why we were spending our summer volunteering there, or how the staff could work such long and highstress hours. But then we’d see a patient being wheeled away to their room—or, in the best cases, walking out the front door—and they’d recognize us and thank us. Sometimes the doctor that saved their life wouldn’t necessarily get a thanks, but they knew my face, since it was the one they saw so often. They remembered that we volunteers were concerned about their well-being and cared for them in small and simple ways, and it stood out the entire time of their stay in the ED. Those little thank yous from patients on the way out or from doctors and nurses on the way in made the backache and frustrations all worthwhile; it reminded me that in the end, whatever role you play or profession you pursue within the field of medicine, healthcare is about helping people who need it, at whatever cost. Gaining the experience of providing that important service has given me memories I won’t forget, and I plan on making many more.