The Cavalier Daily
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Finding healthy lessons out of hospital

THE SCENE: Rugby Road. Friday night. Sidewalks packed with University students waiting in line. Pretty typical. Until you realize the students have come bearing mattresses and sleeping bags. These go-getters aren't waiting for their turn at the keg. They aren't trying to flirt their way into one of the night's big parties. They're waiting for a shot at every pre-med student's most prized position: Madison House medical services volunteer.

Maybe you've seen the hordes crowding the thoroughfare, blocking the way for first-year students eager to reach the nearby fraternity houses. Or maybe you've waited in line all night, convinced you won't get any valuable volunteer experience without a medical services position. If you're like my second-year roommate, you've also contracted a severe head cold in the process. Even shifting the sign-up time from 9 a.m. on a weekday to 5 p.m. on a Saturday doesn't seem to have made a difference.

Perhaps students camp out because it's a tradition. We are talking about the University, after all. Those who spend the night on the cold concrete doorstep of Madison House might be rewarded with a placement that gives them the chance to observe others practicing medicine. But these students don't hold a monopoly on the worthwhile volunteer opportunities available for those interested in medical professions.

The Medical Services Program does an excellent job of exposing undergraduate students to a hospital setting, and surely provides meaningful experiences for many of its volunteers. Placements in the Charlottesville Free Clinic, Kluge Rehabilitation Center and some of the pediatrics units do allow for significant amounts of interpersonal contact.

But others, like the operating room and surgical services, do not provide this essential element. Other programs, both at Madison House and beyond, can provide pre-med students with the kind of volunteer experience they might be looking for if their primary interest lies with patient interaction rather than with observing the technicalities of the medical profession.

Options like Adopt-A-Grandparent and Boosters give volunteers the opportunity to affect a life positively, something doctors strive to do every day - an ability worth cultivating early. According to the Madison House home page, adoptive grandchildren "establish a special one-to-one relationship with an elderly person in the community." What better way to become comfortable interacting with geriatric patients and understanding their perspectives and needs than by cultivating such a relationship with an elderly person?

Similarly, Boosters offers volunteers the chance to interact closely with children. The program concentrates on building relationships with elementary school children who need help with particular skills. True, this type of assistance is not medical and arguably could prove as important for a career in education. Still, if you'd rather facilitate growth in children and gain experience interacting with them than observe 1,000-gram preemies sleeping in incubated beds, this program and others like it provide that opportunity.

The Big Sibling program, one of the most important and meaningful volunteer opportunities available through Madison House, aims to cultivate trusting relationships between its volunteers and children from the community. The program provides "a chance for the volunteer to touch another life," placing University students in a position to have great positive influence on their little siblings' lives.

The program requires a long-term commitment from big siblings and requires dedication and initiative from the student volunteer. The medical profession also demands these things, as well as a continuous commitment to patient advocacy. Through the Big Sibling program, volunteers have the opportunity to cultivate a meaningful interpersonal relationship with a little sibling, while also striving to facilitate positive change and development in that child's life.

Medical Services volunteers certainly do gain important experience that will stand them in good stead when they apply to medical school. But other options offered through Madison House and in the Charlottesville area provide valuable experiences as well, of both a clinical and non-clinical nature. Martha Jefferson Hospital and the Hospice of Piedmont are local health care centers that offer volunteers the chance to work with patients in a clinical setting. The Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue and the Western Albemarle Rescue Squad also provide alternatives with maximum patient contact. Though these organizations require rather rigorous training and long-term commitment, the rewards for those involved certainly are substantial.

Students who waited in line Friday night and managed to claim one of the coveted spots at the University hospital should take the initiative to create the most meaningful experience possible. Those who did not should realize that there's more to life than the ER.

Volunteer opportunities related to the medical field abound, you just have to be willing to look and think outside the box. Don't despair if you missed this year's camp-out. You can always spend a chilly night on Rugby next fall. Or perhaps by then you will have found another volunteer position that's equally rewarding.

(Amy Startt's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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