Royal College of Nursing boss urges Mail readers to help NHS

When I began nursing in the Eighties, one of the first things I recognised was the importance of volunteers in the NHS

Their kindness, their energy, their skills and their enthusiasm supplemented the nursing workforce in so many ways.

One man in particular sticks in my memory. Let’s call him Bill: he would shave each of the male patients in the morning, a small but time-consuming service that invariably made men feel better.

They both looked and felt well cared for. And of course it was an opportunity for Bill, who was retired, to have a chat with each of them. I’ve never forgotten what a difference ‘Bill’s shaves’ made.

Dame Donna Kinnair was made a Dame for her services to nursing, she began in the eighties

Dame Donna Kinnair was made a Dame for her services to nursing, she began in the eighties

Dame Donna Kinnair was made a Dame for her services to nursing, she began in the eighties

Bill was on hand too, to give support to male patients who felt embarrassed when female nurses attended to their personal care and ablutions. For some men, it feels more dignified to have another man around.

Most of all, I remember the beautiful bond Bill formed with a patient in the final stages of Parkinson’s disease. 

This man could not even feed himself. The psychological impact of such an illness can be heavy, but Bill helped him bear it.

He sat with the patient every lunchtime, encouraging him to eat, keeping his spirits up and developing a real friendship. The value of what Bill gave to that hospital ward was beyond calculation.

Long before my three years’ training was over, I was convinced that the NHS would always need volunteers. 

As a staff nurse, I relied on them, and generations of nurses have done – and continue to do – the same. It is why I am whole-heartedly backing the Mail’s Hospital Helpforce campaign and am delighted to see the fantastic response from readers so far.

It’s important to realise that it’s a two-way street – volunteers gain a huge amount by serving their communities and can enrich their lives by forming new friendships and taking on new responsibilities. 

As nurses, because we got to know the volunteers, sometimes over many years, we knew they could be relied upon and trusted, for example by supporting patients who had no relatives or friends to visit – whether that was taking them into the hospital garden and sitting with them, reading to them, cutting their hair and trimming their nails, or simply sitting and providing a listening ear while people reflected on their lives.

They had the time and the commitment to do this well, and they were crucial in helping clinical staff meet all the needs – physical and psychological – of their patients.

Donna Kinnair as a young nurse in the early eighties, she has since been made a dame

Donna Kinnair as a young nurse in the early eighties, she has since been made a dame

Donna Kinnair as a young nurse in the early eighties, she has since been made a dame

It is important for nurses to give personal care too, of course. It’s part of our duty, and provides an important opportunity to spot symptoms. If I’m bathing a patient, for instance, I might pick up the signs and symptoms of underlying illnesses such as a deep vein thrombosis.

But volunteers can be trained to report patient concerns too and bring these to the attention of nurses or doctors. 

And we shouldn’t forget that many volunteers bring pre-existing life and professional skills to volunteering that can be a great asset in a hospital.

Volunteering is also a useful way for teenagers to learn first-hand about care-giving and the health service. 

By volunteering regularly at a hospital, they will learn far more about real life than they could in the classroom.

They might discover a vocation for nursing or another healthcare-related career, and they will certainly find they have talents, such as a gift for listening, that they might want to nurture, and that will prove invaluable in their future careers. 

And again it’s a reciprocal arrangement, because the young benefit from the wisdom and life experience of the older people they meet.

I learnt so much from my patients about their lives post-war and at times they shared how they coped with their long-term conditions.

Some people argue that every job in a hospital should be done by a trained member of NHS staff. But that’s completely unachievable at the moment: there are 42,000 nursing vacancies in England alone.

Since its birth 70 years ago, the NHS has always relied on volunteers for a range of activities, and to imagine that we can do without them is unrealistic and wrong.

Sadly, over the course of my career, volunteers have become less numerous. By the beginning of this century, people seemed less willing to offer their skills and time unpaid. 

The reasons for this are complex, but here’s hoping the Mail’s initiative will change all that, bringing volunteers back to the frontline, something that I know nurses will appreciate very much.

The burden on our nurses is huge. When I started, it was normal for a nurse to have a manageable number of patients in her care, during the day.

Today, as I travel the country, many nurses report that they are looking after too many patients to keep them safe.

Volunteers can help shoulder that burden. Without them, it’s very difficult for an overworked nurse to find the time to sit with someone – perhaps chatting to them or sharing a companionable silence.

Anybody who wants to make a difference to our health service can do it – by committing their time and dedication just like Bill did.

The roles you could play if you volunteer

If you own a dog, play an instrument, ride a motorbike or simply have time on your hands, you could take some of the strain off frontline NHS staff.

By volunteering for a series of mostly unskilled jobs – if only for a few hours a month – you’d be making a huge difference.

Depending on your circumstances and what your local hospital needs, you may even be asked to carry out more than one duty.

The list of jobs waiting to be filled by volunteers includes:

Volunteer Rosie Perry, left, helps Sister Denise Hughes treat Alfie Williams, 13, at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey

Volunteer Rosie Perry, left, helps Sister Denise Hughes treat Alfie Williams, 13, at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey

Volunteer Rosie Perry, left, helps Sister Denise Hughes treat Alfie Williams, 13, at Frimley Park Hospital in Surrey

  • Helping patients and visitors upon their arrival to hospital and showing them where to go
  • Working with heart-surgery patients in the gym by assisting them with the exercise equipment
  • Going through old photos or listening to music to stimulate the memories of those with dementia
  • Providing a library service by going between wards with a trolley of books
  • Talking to anxious patients waiting in A&E, and providing tea and coffee
  • Entertaining young patients on the children’s ward by playing games or, perhaps, dressing up as a superhero
  • Offering support and comfort to bereaved families
  • Making friends with patients who don’t have any visitors and offering to read to them
  • Driving a mobility buggy to take patients with walking problems to other areas of the hospital
  • Helping patients with their meals, particularly those with dementia who struggle to eat by themselves
  • Running a singing group or a band to entertain patients on wards
  • Tending the hospital garden
  • Running errands or taking patients down to the canteen, hospital garden or the shop
  • Fetching prescription medicines for patients who are waiting to go home so they can be discharged promptly
  • Registering your dog or cat for training with the charity Pets As Therapy so you can take them into hospital to comfort patients
  • Offering support to those having cancer treatment, particularly if you have been through cancer yourself
  • Helping patients to settle in at home after they have been discharged – perhaps by checking that the heating is on and there is food in the fridge
  • Befriending elderly former patients to ensure they are coping on their own
  • Taking notes during consultations – with the consent of patients – to ensure they know exactly what their treatment will involve
  • Assisting stroke patients who have communication difficulties, and helping them to build up their confidence
  • Becoming a blood biker and delivering blood and breast milk to hospitals on your own motorcycle
  • Building up a relationship with those who have mental-health conditions and offering them practical advice and emotional support
  • Booking people into outpatient clinics and ensuring they know where they must go
  • Encouraging patients to walk about on the ward to prevent muscle deterioration and bed sores
  • Becoming a disc jockey on the hospital radio station
  • Running the trolley service that provides patients on the wards with essentials and treats
  • Asking patients to complete surveys at the end of their stay to find out what could be improved and whether there were any problems
  • Becoming a massage therapist for patients or relatives, as long as you have a recognised massage qualification
  • Providing patients with basic manicures or other beauty treatments
  • Working in the hospital shop

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