My life-changing day on the hospital frontline

My life-changing day on the hospital frontline: Are you one of the 20,000 selfless Mail readers who’ve signed up for our campaign and are wondering what to expect? JAN MOIR joined one helpforce and found humanity and the NHS at its finest

  • Jan Moir shared volunteering for the Mail’s Join the Hospital Helpforce campaign
  • She spent time at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital helping staff and volunteers
  • She says it’s important to support families and visitors in addition to patients 
  • Her role involved fetching blankets, cleaning and making tea for police officers
  • She describes the experience as hard work but incredibly rewarding
  • Jan shared her top ten tips for new hospital volunteers
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Eight o’clock on a weekday morning and I am standing in the A&E department at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in West London. It is unusually quiet. Obviously things can and do get hectic. The previous evening had been eventful, with an influx of drink and drug-related cases and a nurse bitten by a patient.

Right now there are only a handful of beds occupied; a woman with diabetic issues; a man suffering from severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms; a worried family gathered around a middle-aged male who is noisily trying to discharge himself; and a young man in a wheelchair vomiting silently into a cardboard bowl. In the Emergency Observation Room an elderly lady has her broken wrist in plaster after a fall. She manages to apply some lipstick, but seems confused.

It is my first shift volunteering as part of the Mail’s Join The Hospital Helpforce campaign. Before we began our initiative, Helpforce at Chelsea and Westminster had 503 volunteers. They hope to reach 900 — one for every bed in the hospital.

Jan Moir (pictured) volunteered at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in West London as part of the Mail’s Join The Hospital Helpforce campaign

I am buddied up with Olivia, a rather glamorous 55-year-old who fits the traditional, stereotypical, middle-class, older, white female volunteer profile. Someone who has had a successful business life, but now wants to give something back.

She began volunteering a year ago, one morning a week from 8am to 12pm, after her husband (now recovering) was involved in a motorcycle accident. Chelsea and Westminster is also her local hospital. ‘Family members have died here; both my children were born here,’ she says. ‘I feel connected.’

We begin by clearing out the fridge in the kitchen, replacing the packets of sugar and plastic spoons, checking the stocks of bread and Coco Pops. The hot porridge trolley arrives and we orbit the department to see if anyone would like some. No takers.

There are requests for teas and coffees, and after this, Olivia heads off to the stores to get a gluten-free sandwich for a gluten-intolerant patient. Next, we snap on rubber gloves and remove the fitted sheets from any vacated beds, swab down the plastic mattresses and the bedrails with medical wipes, put on new sheets and place a fresh, folded gown at the end of each bed.

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Olivia goes to talk to the lady with the broken wrist and I note her friendly fluency and expertise at eliciting information while providing a warm degree of companionship. Does she want to make a phone call? Does she have her front door keys? When is her daughter coming? That’s a lovely shade of lipstick . . .

So far, I have not quite mastered this easy eloquence. ‘Do you feel OK?’ I inanely ask the diabetic lady, while delivering her a banana.

‘No,’ she replies.

For the rest of the morning we tour A&E; we tidy up, clean up, fetch water and extra blankets, make tea for attending police officers and staff, talk to patients, see if they need anything, check the supplies in the cupboard of donated clothes — some emergency patients have their clothes cut off — and try to add a layer of comfort and ease for both patients and staff.

Jan (pictured) helped to deliver prescriptions from the pharmacy to the wards in addition to cleaning, fetching blankets and speaking to patients

Olivia previously worked with refugees in Greece and seems to have made herself irreplaceable here. ‘Just making sure patients are comfortable,’ is how she sees her primary role. ‘Cleaning up, stocking up, making sure all are happy and fed. Placating those who haven’t seen a doctor, all that sort of thing.’

She says it is important to have empathy: ‘You need to understand patient frustration and be able to calm them down at a time when they are anxious. But, you know, I love volunteering. Not being paid to do something is really special. It is a nice way to give. And hopefully I have made a little bit of difference, cheered someone up, kept the place clean and tidy.’

A few days after this I work with Andrea, a dietitian from Hungary, who volunteered while applying for a full-time job within the NHS. She is part of the Bleep team, a band of volunteers who patrol the hospital with beepers, so they can be deployed quickly to carry out various tasks.

Inspired to join? go to… (and why not tell all of your friends and family too)

These include delivering prescriptions from the pharmacy to the wards, collecting discarded wheelchairs and storing them at entrances and exits — exhausting but oddly fun — and helping to serve meals in the wards.

For the entire time she is never still — she racks up 20,000 steps per shift on her Fitbit. Volunteering here has made her super fit.

Yet all different types of volunteers are needed in hospitals. You don’t have to be an athlete like Andrea. If you want to sit at a desk and never see a patient, you can do that, too.

The sole job of one volunteer I met was to ring up everyone who was attending the Memory Clinic the next day. ‘I have to remind them of their appointment, otherwise they forget,’ she said.

A small task perhaps, but it seemed like the golden essence of volunteering; taking a time-consuming undertaking out of the hands of hard-pressed staff, leaving them free to do more important work.

How many people volunteer in hospitals?

25 % Increase in volunteer numbers since the start of our campaign

At Chelsea and Westminster there are 18 volunteer roles that cover every department except the mortuary and operating theatres. There are the Bleeps, the youth volunteers, maternity volunteers (who give peer support and help with family tasks, such as shopping) and even End of Life Care volunteers — a tough job, but many who have suffered bereavements often excel at this.

The hospital is particularly keen on female volunteers who have had traumatic birth experiences, asking them to support new mothers who have gone through a similar ordeal.

Yet you don’t need any expertise or niche capabilities to be a Meal Time Volunteer, and that is just as important. Getting patients to eat better is key to returning them to good health.

Jan (pictured) says her experience of volunteering was hard work but incredibly rewarding and claims it gave her a deeper understanding of hospitals

During my time on the wards I came to understand that you are there to help the patients as much as you can, but also to support their families and visitors, too.

And don’t worry about whether or not you are making a difference — you are. You have time, which is a precious commodity in a hospital. If you spend time with patients, they really value it, especially when the ward is busy. At those moments, you can provide patient companionship and reassurance; in general, you just get in there and do the sort of thing a committed relative would do. Do they need a glass of water, fresh tissues, the television turned on or off? It is amazing how they can go from anxious to grateful in a small amount of time.

Most importantly, you must not get in the way of staff or the smooth running of the hospital.

When helping with the lunches on a stroke ward, I mistakenly took a dirty plate back to the serving station where the hot meals were being served. ‘Don’t bring them here. Leave them in the ward. We collect them later,’ I was brusquely told. Ok. Lesson learned. And you have to learn, otherwise you are just in the way.

Volunteers generally fall into three types here. There are the students and 16-plus school pupils who need work experience that will look good on their CVs.

In return, they get skills, experience and talents that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.

What advice does Jan have for new recruits?

1. DO wear close-toed, comfortable shoes that do not make a noise. You don’t want to be squeaking, clomping or clack-clacking your way about the place.

2. ARMS must be bare from the elbows down when you are working on the wards.

3. BE scrupulous about sanitising your hands at the gel pumps when you are moving around the hospital.

4. ALWAYS seek permission from a member of staff before doing anything you haven’t been asked to do.

5. REMEMBER that you are in the midst of the unwell; people who are at their most vulnerable. They might not always respond positively to your cheery smile and Florence Nightingale ministrations.

6. KEEP any fresh theories on how the NHS should be run to yourself.

7. DON’T advise a brain surgeon on the latest craniotomy techniques.

8. ASK before you move that wheelchair.

9. SEEK clarity about a patient’s condition before you approach them.

10. ALWAYS be reliable. If you commit, make sure you turn up. The hospital is relying on you.


‘Quite often,’ a volunteer administrator tells me, ‘they haven’t met any older people other than their granny.’ They learn how to communicate with people outside their normal social circles, a complete boon for anyone.

Then there are those who have had successful careers and want to deploy their skills and talents. Plus empty-nesters or those on a career break, asking themselves what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Volunteering at a hospital is a rewarding way to find answers to such questions.

Volunteers, of course, are not replacing paid positions. Initially there was tension between lower-paid workers, such as hospital porters, who were worried they were being pushed out of a job. The volunteers are there to help, not to supersede, and there are clear rules on what they can and cannot do. While volunteers, for example, can collect wheelchairs, they cannot push patients in them, which involves an entirely different set of responsibilities.

Before I volunteered, I worried I wouldn’t be able to contribute much, but those fears were unfounded. There is plenty to do.

‘The big problem in every hospital today is dementia,’ one doctor told me. At Chelsea and Westminster, volunteers walk dementia patients up and down the wards to give them a little exercise. Youth volunteers communicate with them using memory boxes filled with little trinkets from the past that might spark a reminiscence or conversation. These are all duties stretched nurses and doctors don’t have time to do.

So how did I feel about volunteering? I loved it. It was hard work, but incredibly rewarding. It made me understand hospitals a little more and fear them a little less. For in the middle of this state-of-the-art medical facility, I saw the NHS at its best; gratified to witness a great many acts of unsolicited kindness on all sides.

I came to understand that despite everything, humanity blooms even when staff are stretched to the limit.

On a more selfish note, you feel better about yourself afterwards; the work is a tonic and gives one an inner glow for doing something selfless. As Olivia says, not being paid to do something is special.

That’s why I have signed up — and I hope you will, too.

Inspired to join? go to… (and why not tell all of your friends and family too)

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