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Volunteers: a helping hand


I have been a volunteer in the Emergency Department at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick in Sydney, Australia for more than four years.  I work three to four shifts per week, averaging 20 hours per week. I spent five years volunteering in Oncology before moving to Emergency.  I am a professional photographer, but have always been interested in emergency medicine. My closest friends are doctors. I have been first aid certified for most of my life as well as belonging to a volunteer ambulance corps in New York City.

My role in Emergency is varied. I support all staff from doctors and nurses, to clerks and porters. I make beds, tidy the common areas, stock shelves and clean. But my main focus is distracting and reducing anxiety and fear for children (and often their parents) during procedures and examinations. I must emphasise that I am not a child life therapist (play therapist), though I am often incorrectly referred to as a ‘play therapy volunteer,’ making it easier for parents to understand what my role is in the department.

I have supported staff in the Emergency Department by helping patients and their parents through the following types of procedures:

  • cannulas – x1200
  • suturing – x500
  • burns dressings – x150
  • respiratory – x2000
  • plastering – x400
  • examinations – x2500

To be successful in any skilled profession, one has to have the right attitude, and equally important in my job, the right tools.  Attitude is no problem as I have a good work ethic,  am extremely confident, and never fully matured past the age of 14. I’m silly.  I’m also empathic. Being silly and empathic are the qualities that help me the most to be successful in my volunteer role.

The pockets in my pants are deep and many. That’s where I carry most of my ‘tools.’ Bubbles, toy cars, iPad, iPhone, squeaky dog toys (pig, chicken and crocodile), and five packs of sticker books. The iPad and iPhone are filled with apps that I have researched and tested and know that work.  Soothing music and interactive games are the best. For young boys the ‘fart piano’ is gold. Having free wi-fi in the hospital is an advantage as I can access YouTube Kids in an instant. I’ll ask the parents or children what their favourite show is, and within seconds it’s on the iPad screen.

Another great tool, especially for extremely anxious older children and teens, is breathing exercises. My yoga practising wife taught me a very simple exercise that calms them down almost immediately. Not completely, but it can take them from a highly agitated place to a state of mind they can deal with.  This can be very empowering for a child to know that they have the ability to do this for themselves.

Jimmy is standing beside some of the images that were part of his photographic exhibition at Sydney Children’s Hospital from the 2012 project ‘a year in the life.

I often assist clinicians with autistic children. Having no formal education in autism, I have had to find my own way to help them cope with being in hospital.  My Nursing Manager explained that autistic children have a highly increased level of sensitivity, so I usually base my strategies on this fact. Every child seems to have their own likes and dislikes, and interests and disinterests. What calms one child down can escalate discomfort in another. I always ask the parents for their advice as they know their child best.  Some like to be touched, some love music, some are interested in spinning wheels on toy cars, some adore trains, and some want to watch Fireman Sam – the list goes on.  Once I know what works, half the problem is solved. The next part is easy for some, but difficult to impossible for others – emitting empathy. An autistic child will know if you are authentic  or just going through the motions. The child will not feel your presence and will ignore you. But if they know you care, and I mean really, really care, then often they will respond. My greatest satisfaction is calming a child with autism.

There is often debate about whether it is better to spend valuable time distracting, or rather than just getting the procedure done as quickly as possible. The decision depends on a number of factors: the personalities of the clinicians, the child, and the parents; how busy the department is; and whether the extra time spent will make a difference. When I first started in emergency, I naively thought I could distract and calm any child. Sometimes I would spend 10 minutes getting a child to totally relax, only for the child to become completely uncooperative once the procedure started. Experience, along with input from the nursing staff, has taught me which children to spend time on, and which ones no amount of time spent will make a valid difference.

I have had a glorious life, filled with adventure, unforgettable experiences, good health, love of family, and success in my profession. But working in emergency has been the most gratifying thing I have ever done.  It’s a symbiotic relationship that suits all parties.

What does being a volunteer mean to me?

  • I can make a huge difference to a child’s and their parent’s experience in hospital
  • I am able to support clinical and non-clinical staff
  • I am an accepted member of a formidable team
  • I have the opportunity to learn

What is my scope?

  • At the clinician’s discretion and direction, any non-clinical support I feel confident to provide

Volunteers are an integral part of life at Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick. Over 200 loyal volunteers dedicate their personal time assisting staff by entertaining and caring for patients and their families.  I am extremely proud to belong to such an inspiring group of human beings.




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