Healing from within: volunteering at the hospital


Photo by Anushka Anand

My time at the hospital taught me to trust myself and enjoy the journey, no matter where I’m headed.

Catherine Zhou, Design Editor

I pause at the hallway intersection, hands tightly gripping the wheelchair handlebars, eyes darting between two corridors. I rack my brain, trying to recall the routes I had  spent weeks memorizing. Is cardiology in the left wing? Should I turn left? Right? 

When I first started working as a patient transport volunteer in a veterans hospital, intersections were my worst enemy. I still remember my disastrous first solo transport assignment, where I accidentally ended up at the intensive care unit instead of the outpatient rooms and had to rely on my patient to guide me to the correct location. 

Traumatized by this experience, I spent several shifts shadowing the other transport employees. I watched them confidently make all the correct turns, swiftly maneuver wheelchairs into elevators and navigate around obstacles. Most of all, I was in awe of their ability to connect with the patients through small talk and help them feel comfortable. Each time I tried to talk to my patients, I could barely seem to muster a nervous, “How are you doing today?”

With each shift, I took on more assignments and eventually got to know the hospital like the back of my hand. Along the way, I realized that my lack of trust in myself was holding me back. I second-guessed my instincts, which led to more mistakes and a vicious cycle of self-doubt and fear. In order for my patients to trust me, I needed to show them I trusted myself. As I began to chat with my patients to ease my nerves, initially only feigning confidence, I realized that the patients were more than willing to open up to me. 

One day, I was transporting a patient named Charles, a World War II veteran wearing a cap covered in colorful pins and patches. As he shared memories of his time as a sniper and playing basketball during the war, I honored his bravery and sacrifice and laughed at his stories, delighted that he loved basketball just as much as I did. While I led him and his wife through the twists and turns inside the hospital, we eased into a conversation about our favorite teams, which led to Charles reminiscing about his hometown and his sons.

After I helped Charles into his car, his wife thanked me outside of the car and said she’d never heard Charles talk so much about his sons. “It has been so difficult,” she said, eyes full of tears. “Raising them all by myself, without him.”

As I comforted her, I realized the true value of my role as a patient transporter — to provide compassion and alleviate pain for patients and their families as we navigate through the hospital together. Yet, I was so focused on my own struggles that I’d forgotten the very reason I was here. I have the responsibility to not only do my job, but also, more importantly, to take care of my patients. By simply talking with them, I can help them feel at least slightly happier, to distract them from the bleakness of the hospital, to illuminate our shared humanity. Perhaps, outside the walls of the hospital, I’d also been so focused on successfully achieving my lofty goals that I’d forgotten to truly cherish the people around me, who supported me unconditionally just as Charles’ wife supported him.

Navigating the winding paths of the hospital corridors, I began to slow down and spend time listening to my patients’ stories, concerns and corny jokes as we headed toward their destinations. My time at the hospital taught me to trust myself and enjoy the journey, no matter where I’m headed. Most importantly, I’m reminded that I’m never alone, and I hope I can help my patients feel the same way.