Patient support volunteer Susan Clark has been volunteering her time on the wards and in the kitchens at Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in Leeds for almost 40 years. Here, she outlines what her role involves and what the hospice is really like.
Back in 1979, when I started volunteering, Wheatfields Hospice was very new. It’s changed so much since then.
My role used to involve ironing the nurses’ uniforms (back when they wore dresses) and shopping for patients – including buying them cigarettes to smoke there in the hospice! Even back then I was shocked at how much they cost.
I volunteer once a week on a Monday morning, doing a four-hour shift. I start by doing some washing up then I do the rounds, taking round first a water jug and then hot drinks like tea or coffee. Next, I help the kitchen staff set up the trays for patients’ lunches, which I then deliver to their rooms, before coming back to collect everything.
I work closely with another lady whose been volunteering for 15 years so we certainly know how the other operates by now; we’re good friends who stay in touch during the week. I also rub shoulders with other volunteers and support staff in different departments – out in the garden or doing maintenance – all working hard.
Discretion, intuition and a smile
No two shifts are the same; sometimes I see the same patients for several weeks, and other times they aren’t there the next time I’m in.
As volunteers, we aren’t privy to any medical information about the patients – just things like their cup, utensil or dietary preferences – so we’re very conscious of responding to patients and their families’ cues about what they might want or need.
When families are visiting, I don’t like to encroach on the time they have together – you never know how ill the person might be or how little time they might have left. I do my best to stay on the periphery while remaining warm and approachable.
To volunteer in a role like mine, I think it helps to be discreet. Intuition is also useful to assess situations and moods as you go into patients’ rooms – not to mention a smile and the ability to make a mean cuppa!
Why do you volunteer?
I certainly don’t go for the commute – the journey can take up to an hour in the morning traffic!
Put simply: being able to do something for patients and their families is very rewarding. Just making someone smile, however briefly, is a lovely feeling. And working closely with the kitchen and support staff, I can see how much we help them; it’s good to feel useful.
I’ve made a lot of friends here over the years too and it’s a really nice atmosphere.
What was it like receiving your Outstanding Contribution to Sue Ryder Award last year?
I was delighted to be Highly Commended, and pleased and very proud to receive an award. My family and fellow volunteer were both thrilled, and it was a very special and uplifting day.
I always stress to people that I wasn’t singled out because I do anything better than anyone else – I’ve just been there a long time! I do so little in a way – not like the nursing staff – and my contact with patients is limited; all I try to do is make them feel a bit more at home.
“The hospice is a welcoming, warm and homely place.”
People often think hospices are going to be very depressing places but that’s not true at Wheatfields; it’s actually uplifting.
Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice is a lovely building with pleasant gardens. People feel that it’s a welcoming, warm and homely place as soon as they walk in the door to reception. The caring atmosphere is generated by the front-line medical staff who are there all the time and it feels good to be part of that.
I think it means a lot to people that they can come and go as they please, or stay overnight and have meals together there.
It’s a good thing to do and I know they’re always short of volunteers
A few years ago, a patient was returning home after a stint in the hospice and I remember asking him: “Where’s home?” – just chatting, as you do – and he said: “I live on my own and, to be honest, I really like it here so I’d much rather be staying.”
I think that says it all really.
Could you be our next volunteer?