Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Mandatory Volunteering

Several months ago I heard a sad story.

One of the surgeons sits on the medical school admissions committee.

A young applicant to our school had an interesting life. She was raised by a single mother in one of our poorer neighbourhoods. Despite this she was able to get marks good enough to get into university. To be able to afford university however she had to work part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer. Even with this burden she was able to get good enough marks and and MCAT score to be considered for a place in our medical school.

Sounds like a slam dunk. Horatio Alger story, proof our society works, good time management skills, hard worker, blah, blah, blah.

Something was missing though. Because she had spent her undergraduate years either working to support herself or studying she neglected to do the volunteer work now considered mandatory in order to be a good medical student.

She was told not to bother applying.

Now I hope some other medical school in Canada is not stupid enough to turn down what sounds like an excellent candidate (and that she will be able to afford to travel there for the interview). This does bring up the whole concept of mandatory volunteering and volunteering in general.

One of our friends' sons recently was accepted into medical school. He knew from the start that he would have to volunteer. Our friends are quite religious and very active in their church and it was made clear to him that church related activities did not count. He did some type of volunteering somewhere and will be starting medical school in the fall.

All this makes me wonder whether I would have gotten into medical school now. When I was in first year university somebody told me that if I was interested in medical school I should join the pre-med club. (Actually as I soon found out that was about the worst thing you could do). On club day I kind of shyly approached the pre-med club table. There was a young lady (older than me) at the table who asked if I was interested in signing up. "Signing up for the pre-med club?" I said. "No", she said," we are going to play volleyball with prisoners and we are looking for volunteers." I politely declined and retreated from the table and never ever considered the pre-med club. For many years I wondered, "why the hell would the pre-med club be interested in playing volleyball with prisoners". It only recently struck me, to have something good to put on their medical school applications.

I later got railroaded into being my residence floor rep for most of two years, sat on the students council(along with one future federal cabinet minister and one future provincial cabinet minister) and got involved in the Science Undergrad Society. I like to think that I never got involved in any of these activities because I thought it would help my chances of getting into medical school. I like politics, I had an agenda which I hoped would make life better for me (and my peers) and it opened up a whole different social circle to drink beer with. With some prodding I remember mentioning my activities to to Dean of Admissions, some of things I had been involved with, I didn't think the Faculty of Medicine would necessarily approve of.

My youngest son who just graduated from high school took physical education in Grade 12. In order to pass PE 12, it was necessary to do a certain number of hours of volunteering. For him this meant staying after school and working as a linesman at volley ball games. A necessary thing, but not something that should have to be coerced.

In hospitals we of course have a large number of volunteers and I suppose they do an excellent job. My impression is that most of them, especially the younger ones just stand around looking bored. Now when I look at them, particularly when I look at one of university age, I wonder, what are you applying for and do you really want to be here. We had an excellent volunteer, a retired lady who helped out in the pain clinic for a number of years. She functioned like our ward clerk,did a great job and was really a part of team. One day the nurses approached me and said it was time we got a real ward clerk, I wrote a letter and we got one. I could see on the first days of the ward clerk that our volunteer was a little insulted. She hung on for a year but stopped coming when her husband got sick and now we don't have a volunteer.

I entered the universe of volunteerism a couple of years ago. We had the World Master Games in our city. I heard that they were desperately short of medical volunteers and I was in town so I volunteered. This entailed filling out an on-line form that took me at least an hour (I am not exaggerating). After some time my wife and I were notified that we were to help out with the 10K run. I assumed this was in a medical capacity. In order to be volunteers we had to go downtown and stand in line to get our volunteer package which included our identification/lanyard, a polyester shirt that is now probably being worn somewhere in Africa, a baseball cap that is now in the landfill and a fanny pack (also now in the landfill). Then we had to spend another evening on orientation. It was at this point that I realised that I had volunteered to pass out water and Gatorade at the 10K run although I suspected maybe my medical skills might be required. On the day of the race, we got there early set up our water station mixed up Gatorade and filled paper cups full of water or Gatorade. When the runners came by we offered our cups shouting, "water" or "Gatorade". (Oh by the way anybody who reads this who runs in races, if you don't want a drink just run by, don't slap the cup out of the volunteer's hand.) After the last runner limped by we took down the station and left. Meanwhile a friend of mine who volunteered told me they were desperately short of medical volunteers all week but apparently I'm not good for much besides passing our water. I have not volunteered for anything since.