Dredging up the Past: My Summer Volunteer Gig from Hell

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cartoon candy stripersEver since my kids were little, I’ve scrambled around this time of year to find summer camps that would, optimally, expand their horizons or, at the very least, keep them occupied and safe. But this summer, my daughter will be almost 14—that awkward age when kids are getting too old for camps, but not quite old enough for a summer job. I could send her off on a summer ‘experience’, like hiking the Alps or watching whales in California, which would cost me and her father a small fortune, but I think I’ll let her do that when she’s old enough to afford it on her own. So, as I see it, that leaves us with one option.

Volunteer work. When I shared with my daughter this proposal, it didn’t go over well. Her first reaction? “I’m not working for free.” After I calmly reminded her that few to no employers would hire a 13-year-old, and that volunteering would give her experience she could leverage in future summers for a paying job, it did little to appease her. Then I told her that I volunteered in the summer when I was her age. What I left out is how wretched the experience was.

Growing up was different for me than it is for my daughter. The fourth of five kids, I pretty much did what was asked of me—except when I began sneaking around behind my parents’ back in my mid-teens, but that’s a different story. So, knowing that my three older siblings had been a candy striper (volunteer) at the local hospital, I didn’t balk when it was my turn to do it. Like going to church every Sunday, I just obeyed. But instead of putting on my Sunday church dress, I wore to my candy striper job a polyester pink and white striped jumper, with a starched white cap on my head, the kind nurses used to wear, with white tights and tennis shoes. I felt completely awkward in this get-up. I was about to feel way more awkward.

There are people who thrive in hospital environments. Then there are the rest of us. Up on the hospital ‘unit’, where nurses and doctors moved around purposefully, quickly, down the halls and patients lay listlessly or restlessly in their rooms, I felt I had no place.

I also found everything about these hospital units off-putting. The smell, for one, made me want to run for fresh air. Maybe it’s a mix of bad hospital cafeteria food and the odor of sickness. I don’t know, nor can I can explain it, but I will never forget it. Nor will I forget the tasks I was assigned, most of which I found gross or awkward.

Take, for example, the making of a patient’s bed. With a patient in it. To this day, it remains a mystery to me, though I’ve seen trained nurses do it quickly and efficiently. You’re supposed to be able to roll the patient from side to side, getting them out of the way while you nip and tuck at the sheets. My patients almost fell off the bed or got tangled in their sheets.

Some of the tasks I was asked to perform were practically unmentionable. Like the time a nurse requested that I hold steady a flashlight as medical personnel inserted a catheter into an elderly patient. I thought I would pass out.

A patient almost passed out on me when, one day, a nurse told me to weigh every patient on the maternity ward, even if they refused. One of the patients warned me that she felt weak and faint. I urged her to stand on the mobile scale, as I was told. She did, but soon she grabbed on to the pole of the heavy metal mobile scale and, reeling, began to fall backwards. I tried to catch her, and we both crumbled to the ground.

I thought dealing with non-patient related tasks would be easier. I think my supervisors did too. We were both wrong. Taking trays of blood vials to the basement laboratory was my primary non-patient task. There was a lot of blood on those trays. Once I touched one of the vials of blood; it was still warm. Again, I thought I would black out.

But that was nothing compared to wandering around in the bottom floor of the hospital, attempting to find my way to the laboratory where they tested the blood. It sometimes took me upwards of an hour to reach the bowels of the building and return to the unit. It was then that I first realized I had no sense of direction.

Nor did the patients I let loose. On that day, I was assigned to a unit consisting primarily of elderly patients. Some of them were strapped down to their chairs or beds with cloth ties. They asked me to untie them. It was the least I could do, I figured. Finally, I felt useful. I had actually done something successfully, and it didn’t result in a sudden urge to vomit. Until I came back from my lunch break later that day.

I can still recall rounding the hall and hearing the medical personnel having some sort of pow wow. They all wanted to know who’d unstrapped the patients with dementia, those known for ‘fleeing’.  The tone of the meeting was pretty close to hysteria. I turned quickly, ran for the elevators, and punched out for the day.

In retrospect, my summer volunteering gig wasn’t all bad. It made me 100 percent certain that I would never pursue a career in nursing or medicine. I can only hope that my daughter’s foray into summertime volunteering will be as enlightening, yet less painfully so.

Elizabeth Heubeck

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore Fishbowl contributor and local freelance writer.


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  1. All I remember doing as a candy striper was emptying waste baskets and making empty beds. And eating lunch every day for like and hour

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