When Natalie Hassell started volunteering at Mid-Columbia Medical Center’s emergency room, she was imagining a bit more drama and maybe some gross factor.
But not so much on either count, she’s finding.
She was one of the first to sign up for a new program at MCMC that places a volunteer in the emergency department to assist patients and their families with everything from updates to an ice pack to simply a friendly, empathetic ear.
As for the gross factor, Hassell offers this: “I saw a baby pee all over its mom.” And something she delicately referred to as someone with “skin issues.”
She’s seen plenty of gore, but that was when she spent a year in Africa, where hospitals are few and inadequate, and the families of patients are responsible for providing their food and linens. “You can see some pretty wild stuff over there. This is pretty tame.”
She pulls a four-hour shift every Monday, from 2 to 6 p.m. The hospital has a handful of volunteers already, two of whom work very regularly. Their dream is to have volunteer staffing around the clock, and at least during what are typically the busiest hours, from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m.
“We just want to keep better communication with patients, using these volunteers that have a caring heart,” said Dr. Patrick Grimsley, medical director of the emergency department at MCMC.
The idea for the program came from nursing staff, said Joyce Powell-Morin, Planetree coordinator at MCMC.
“Because the patient volume can shift so fast, unfortunately we have patients waiting longer than we’d like them to wait,” Powell-Morin said. The volunteers play an important role of checking on patients.
“We don’t want them to feel forgotten.”
Because patients with more serious medical issues naturally take priority, some patients with less serious issues may end up waiting longer, and people who got there after them may get seen first due to their situation.
Volunteers will have scripts to follow to explain such situations, and nurses will explain it as well, said Jayme Alsup, assistant director of the emergency department and trauma coordinator for MCMC. They will also get training before they begin their volunteer work.
It takes a special kind of person to work in ER, Alsup said, and the volunteers will be the same special kind of person, just without the medical background.
Though this is a small town, the ER is surprisingly busy, seeing anywhere from 30 to 60 people in a 24-hour cycle. One thing staff suggested would help would be someone to keep communication flowing, and the idea for a volunteer ER helper was born.
The hospital has hundreds of volunteers, but just a few have helped in the ER before, Powell- Morin said, and they were doing.”
When things are slow, Hassell, who wears a smock identifying her as an MCMC volunteer, tidies up the waiting room, and does things that paid staff just don’t have time to do, like maybe filling up a coffee pot.
But the slow times can be few. “Invariably, every time I’m working an ambulance is coming in,” said Hassell, who has volunteered for just under two months now. Those in ambulances go right into the ER, but the family that trickles in ends up in the waiting room, wanting information.
That’s where Hassell comes in.
She’s back and forth between the waiting room and the eight-room ER — where she stays “on the fringe” — bearing information as allowed.
But more likely, she’s working with people who go to ER by private vehicle and find themselves in the waiting room after getting screened by a nurse. She waits with them and offers what help she can. “An ice pack can be a comfort for someone with a sprained ankle.”
“Anything I can do to take the edge off it, I think is great,” she said. She also offers pillows or blankets, and activity kits for the little ones.
She gets a nurse’s permission before giving a patient food, since it could interfere with their care.
She can also offer waiting family a sandwich and some chips.
But mostly, “I listen. A lot of it is truly listening. They usually tell you why they’re there. You know who to interact with, you just sense it.” But, in this day and age, she said, it’s not uncommon to have the waiting room full of people looking at their phones.
But when they do talk, she provides an empathetic ear. And she also cautions them, “You’re going to have to repeat this to the doctor!”
Sometimes people tell her their emergency “happened for a reason.”
“I just try to validate where they’re at,” she said. “I think we have to attach meaning to what happens in life sometimes.”
Waiting room reactions range from crying to calm. Everybody’s different, she said. “Most people are very contained,” she said.
Those interested in joining the ER volunteer program can call Celeste Minnis, MCMC volunteer coordinator, at 541-506-6426.
They’re looking for people that can approach strangers and start a conversation, and can read people to know whether they even want to have a conversation, she said. Hassell signed up as an ER volunteer slot because it sounded interesting, and hasn’t been disappointed.
“ER is interesting because it’s all over the map,” she said. “Anything from dog bites to orchard accidents to heart attacks. You don’t know what’s going to walk through the door. I’ve got to be ready for the whole spectrum.”
Even so, “It’s not as frantic as I thought,” she said. “It’s not like TV. They’re calm and purposeful. They’re professionals. They know what they’re doing.”