March 2016

Volunteering at the hospital

It is hard to imagine coping without them: the volunteers who give their time and commitment to the Berner Inselspital (university hospital in Bern). They do so for free but not in vain. We met three volunteers at Inselspital.

Freiwilligendienst im Spital Titelbild

Susanne Kocher, volunteer at the Inselspital Bern (university hospital in Bern)

“I give sick babies things which nurses often do not have the time for: attention and comfort, and sometimes a lullaby.” She is easy to spot from a distance in her claret hospital uniform: Susanne Kocher. She is standing in the corridor of the children’s hospital. She is rocking four-week-old Nico* in her arms and warming his tiny feet. She is doing it out here so as not to disturb Anna*, Nico’s room-mate. The two-week-old girl has finally nodded off, wrapped up warmly and lying in Susanne_Kocher a baby bouncer suspended from the ceiling. Nico and Anna are both ill. Susanne Kocher does not know what is wrong with them, but she is very much aware of what they need: “Affection, comfort, distraction and sometimes a lullaby or a fresh nappy,” she says. Her presence is valuable: babies calm down, the parents – who are often stretched to their limits – can take a short break, and the departmental nursing staff can focus fully on their young patients’ medical needs.

Susanne Kocher is on the ward every Friday morning. Without pay. The 55-year-old, whose main occupation is that of psychotherapist, is one of 150 volunteers who give back to the “Insel” (which is what the approximately 7,700 employees call their hospital) everything that falls by the wayside in hospital operations due to the increasing cost pressure and tight daily schedule: attention, patience, time to chat, listening, reading out loud and support. These volunteers have become indispensable at Berner Inselspital. “Losing the volunteers would result in a huge drop in the quality of care,” says Holger Baumann, Chairman of the Executive Board. “I would prefer not to paint a picture of how this would affect our hospital's reputation.”

At Insel, volunteers work in the most varied of locations: artists from the Theodora Foundation fill the three storeys of the children’s ward with laughter every Wednesday afternoon (see box). On the same day, volunteers at Insel push the mobile kiosk through the long corridors, while others supervise the visitors’ crèche or staff the cafeteria, which was specially designed for terminally ill patients and their relatives. Four volunteers help on a daily basis with patient admissions and ensure that new arrivals do not have an unfriendly experience during their admission to Insel, no matter how big a hospital this is.

Making jam sandwiches for those with hand injuries

Volunteers also provide valuable support on the wards of Insel. Bruno Gamma works on a ward every Friday morning and has done so ever since he took early retirement three years ago. The 65-year-old looks after patients who have been newly admitted to the plastic surgery ward, takes them to their rooms and helps them to unpack. He delivers breakfast to freshly operated patients and makes jam sandwiches for those with hand injuries. He interrupts his story by saying “One moment, please!” and hurries over to an elderly gentleman who has just stepped into the corridor: “All the best. I put the prescription for the pharmacy in the outside pocket of the suitcase.” A warm handshake and then Bruno Bruno Gamma Gamma comes back: “I really enjoy the contact with people.” He is here for them, providing everything from a helping hand to a sympathetic ear and plenty of encouragement. He now takes a folded sheet of A4 paper from his trouser pocket. He has written down the names of the patients on his ward on it. Before entering a room, he has a look to see who is in which bed: “It is important to me to address people by their name.”

Volunteers like Bruno Gamma and Susanne Kocher do not perform any caring or nursing duties at Inselspital, so they do not need any related knowledge. They are there, first and foremost, to add a human touch to hospital procedures. All new team members only have to go on a half-day hospital hygiene course. It is Christa Bont’s job to recruit, coordinate and manage them in her capacity as group leader for volunteers. The certified occupational therapist plays a key role in this respect: it is best not to imagine how the hospital’s reputation would be affected if volunteers brought suffering rather than joy and damage rather than benefits. “A person must fit in here,” responds Christa Bont to the question of what she looks for in a potential volunteer. “The chemistry and motives must be right.” Susanne Kocher had registered after moving to Bern several months ago. She loves children; her own ones have flown the nest. And she knows from experience what the parents of hospitalised children go through – and how good it feels to be supported. For his part, Bruno Gamma has always been interested in medicine: “I have read countless textbooks and my wife was a nurse,” he says. “I also like people a lot and have time.” Last but not least, Mara Wirth came to Insel with a desire to do something “altruistic”. “I have always worked,” says the 22-year-old law student, “to pay for holidays, shopping or my studies. And it was always about the money.” Since this summer, in addition to her paid jobs, she has also been working as a volunteer responsible for managing the electronic patient discharge system in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine.

Well-being and a touch of pride

Although Mara Wirth, Susanne Kocher and Bruno Gamma do not earn anything, they do not come away empty-handed; on the contrary: Bruno Gamma describes his involvement as a “win-win situation”. Susanne Kocher describes her volunteering as being “very nice and fulfilling”. And Mara Wirth says: “I feel very comfortable working here. I like the job; the people; simply everything.” She can imagine looking back on her life in the future and being slightly proud of “not only having thought about myself – even as a young woman”.

Text: Iris Kuhn-Spogat

*These names have been changed