Giving back through volunteering helps shape path to medical school


Volunteers play a crucial role in the patient care services we deliver in the Emergency Department (ED) at St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Toronto. Whether it’s a welcoming smile, a conversation or answering questions, our volunteers aim to support patients and their families while receiving care in our ED.

Adrienne Elbert, a university student who has been volunteering in the ED since 2008, always knew that she wanted to volunteer in a hospital, to observe the medical environment, interact with a variety of people and make a difference in the lives of others. For individuals who want to give their time to St. Joseph’s, our aim is to provide a volunteer experience that is rewarding and beneficial. For Elbert, it has helped her to prepare for the next stage of her life – medical school.

“What attracted me most to St. Joe’s was the Mission and Values (of the organization) and when doing my research (on where I should volunteer), I wanted to give my time to a hospital where I could really contribute,” said Elbert.

Adrienne provides a comforting presence to patients and families who are anxiously waiting for treatment, test results, or news about a loved one in the ED. “We want to make sure our role as volunteers is complimenting the staff – we don’t interfere with the medical aspect of their care, we don’t give out medical information or medical aides. Our role is really to make the patients comfortable in a non-medical way and interact with others to provide emotional support,” said Elbert.

Elbert is one of over 230 volunteers at St. Joseph’s who represents the growing number of student volunteers interested in health-care related careers, seeking exposure to the health-care environment to prepare them for the work force. When she isn’t spending time with patients, she is working towards her Masters degree on the genetics of learning disabilities and will be starting a combined MD/PhD program in the fall at the University of Western Ontario. Elbert says her experience at St. Joseph’s has really helped shape her impression of the medical field to understand the importance of patient-centred care and has prepared her as she works towards her career goals.

“Our Emergency Department volunteers are selected for this area because they understand the need for emotional support and the value of listening, they have strong communication skills that enhance overall department communication and they can provide support in a non-judgmental manner that respects the Health Centre’s Mission and Values,” explains Maureen Ford, Manager of Volunteer Services. “Some are students interested in health-care careers, some are foreign trained doctors looking for exposure to the Canadian system. Most importantly, they all care about our commitment to Put Patients First,” said Ford.

Elbert has also taken on a leadership role for this volunteer area, mentoring and training new volunteers assigned to serving in the ED. She helps volunteers understand the dos and don’ts of their role and also explains the layout of the ED and how it functions, highlighting the separate areas they will be working in including the paediatrics, ambulatory and main bed areas. Each volunteer receives 12 hours of training prior to starting in the ED and volunteers are present seven days a week. There are 56 individuals in total that give their time to our Emergency Department patients.

“We help to answer some general questions and just help to provide patients with a distraction through talking with them,” says Elbert. “There are a lot of elderly patients that I see in the main bed area, where interaction is more about having conversations with them. In the waiting room, we can help alleviate some of the stress that patients are feeling by letting them know that they haven’t been forgotten and that the staff are working hard to see them as quickly as possible.”

Donna Hess, Patient Care Manager for the Emergency Department explains that the team is so thankful to have volunteers in the department. “Volunteers play a very valuable role in the ED by helping the patients communicate their needs and liaising with our staff. They are integral members of our team, who truly aim to provide our patients with a more enjoyable experience while they are in our care.”

Elbert explains that for her, volunteering and having the opportunity to train new volunteers has been an enriching experience, and feels great knowing that she is able to influence people’s perspective on the importance of giving their time for others. “After I have trained new volunteers and come back for my shifts and look at the schedule to see that they are still here, I feel great knowing that I’ve been able to make a positive contribution,” Elbert said.

“There is a lot to gain from volunteering. You will be appreciated so much, you will be developing your interpersonal skills and especially if you are interested in health care you’ll get a first-hand experience of what health care is really like – it’s not like the show ER! I’ve also enjoyed the opportunity to mentor other volunteers and it’s been great also to make new friends and connections,” she adds.

“I was thrilled, but not surprised, when Adrienne was accepted to medical school. All of my observations lead me to believe Adrienne’s personal strengths and outstanding dedication will be a valuable asset to the medical profession – I look forward to following her career,” said Ford.