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.


ZMD said...

I agree that the criteria for getting into medical school, or even a decent university, is getting ridiculous. Our local high school has requirements for the number of hours students have to volunteer before they can graduate. I know they are just trying to get their students into better universities and "expand their horizons", but is that legal? Besides volunteering, students now have to have resumes that previously only college grad students possessed, like groundbreaking research and awards at science presentations. I don't think I would have gotten into med school today. I used to come home from high school, do my homework, and watch Dukes of Hazzard or Gilligan's Island on TV. I don't think all this nonsense about forced "volunteering" will make better doctors.

Anonymous said...

I think that forced 'volunteering' is a bit ridiculous, but I think it is a great idea for med school applicants to have some exposure to the nastier side of human bodily fluids and excretions. Perhaps there should be some mandatory number of hours of unpaid work in a hospital or care facility etc., without lying to ourselves and calling it 'volunteering'


Bleeding Heart said...

Many of my medical school colleagues worked as orderlies during the summer or on weekends before and during medical school. They got the exposure and more importantly got a well paid unionized job. I tried to do this one summer, alas my position was eliminated due to budgetary cutbacks.

I don't think the volunteers I see around the hospital pushing snack carts around are getting that much exposure to blood and gore.

I have had 25+ years of blood and gore. I don't think any more exposure before medical school would have made me a better person (except I might have applied to law school instead).

DJ Cronin said...


Interesting post!

I have already written on mandatory volunteering so my views there are well known.

What I would like to address here is the volunteer in the pain clinic. You said yourself that she was an excellent volunteer. You said yourself that she did a great job. You further stated that you could see that she was a little insulted. How could you see this? Did she suddenly get sad? Was she looking pissed out of the blue? Did you all of a sudden notice the frowns, looks of frustration, or/and bewilderment. You must have. Yet she “hung on” for a year. Brave lady. I would have gone after a week!

Was there no consultation here? Did she not merit such consultation or dialogue because she was “merely” a volunteer? “I wrote a letter” and suddenly a volunteering role was changed completely.

Did you ever think that this could impact on a person’s life? Or were you thinking there would be no impact because this was after all just a volunteer?

I am sorry that you have given up on volunteering because of one bad experience. I encourage you to try again and to do some research on volunteerism and volunteer management in particular which might give you some deeper insights. I look forward to another blog from you on the topic.

You will be glad to know that your interesting blog on this topic is now gaining a wider audience in the volunteerism community!


DJ Cronin

Bleeding Heart said...

It was actually no reflection on the volunteer. The nurses felt we needed more help than she was able to provide. In addition on the weeks she couldn't come, the volunteers who came weren't as helpful as she was.

It wouldn't have been appropriate to discuss getting a ward clerk with her. We might have discussed why we were getting a ward clerk with her before starting.

Susan J. Ellis said...

I was led to this blog by DJ Cronin's blog. Your response to his comment shows you still are not thinking of the volunteer's perspective (or even realized that she had one). You had the right to replace volunteers with a paid worker, but doing so without some advance notice is uncaring. Also, by not discussing what else volunteers might do after the change in order to be helpful in other ways, shows that you consider them mainly as bodies filling a work slot, not as individuals with talents to offer and loyalty to your institution. Doesn't your hospital have someone in charge of volunteer services who might have been of help here?

Bleeding Heart said...

Actually when we got a ward clerk, she did more than the volunteer did, including a lot of work that the nurses had to do previously like answer the phone, do bookings, things the volunteer was not able to do.

We continued with the same volunteer for at least a year and a half after getting the ward clerk after which the volunteer had to stop coming because of her husband's illness.

I always considered her part of the team and still miss her.