When he visits patients at MD Anderson Cancer Center, Joshua Anil is sometimes surprised by their strong reactions.
In his year and a half as a trained MD Anderson volunteer, Anil previously worked on the Hat Cart, offering complimentary baseball caps, scarves, hats and turbans to patients undergoing chemotherapy, and now visits with thoracic surgery patients in their rooms, making conversation and offering complimentary toiletries and magazines.
“Some patients don’t want hats, some patients don’t even want to talk, but they will just be so moved and will almost cry that someone is coming to talk to them. The fact that they are so grateful and so happy that MD Anderson cares this much has been amazing,” says Anil, a 19-year-old Rice University sophomore from Dallas.
Before he began volunteering, Anil says, he knew of MD Anderson’s rating as the best hospital in the United States for cancer care. “But seeing how much effort goes into every detail of care, and how dedicated everybody is to making sure that patients have the best experience possible so that they’ll have the best possible recovery, has been really amazing.”
About 25 percent of MD Anderson’s on-site volunteers are college students. They’re part of a diverse group of more than 1,000 on-site trained volunteers who enhance the patient experience by providing comfort, hope, support and education.
“Our program is very structured because we have so many volunteers and so many different patient needs,” says Mary Donnelly Jackson, a director in Volunteer Services and Merchandising who leads volunteer recruitment, onboarding, education and myCancerConnection, a unique cancer support community that offers one-on-one support by connecting cancer patients, survivors and caregivers.
After completing a questionnaire about their interests on MD Anderson’s website, volunteers go through multiple interviews, orientation and one-on-one training to be sure that the person and the assigned position are a good match. College student assignments are designed for a one-semester commitment with onboarding at the end of the previous semester. A specific orientation for college students focuses on appropriate positions and allows them to meet students from other schools.
“We’ve always had individual college students as volunteers,” Jackson says, “but now we’re trying to work through organizations on campus.”
At the University of St. Thomas (UST), for example, members of Tri Beta, the biological national honor society, are particularly interested in the opportunity to fulfill their organization’s community service obligations. When Volunteer Services and Merchandising identified that volunteer positions on Friday afternoons and evenings were difficult to fill, the students at UST filled the slots.
At Rice, Anil serves as the liaison between MD Anderson and the Rice Premedical Society, where he is vice president. He arranged for a Volunteer Services and Merchandising staff member to attend the first general meeting of the fall semester and make a presentation about opportunities. A hospital tour allows students to see volunteering first-hand.
Anil, who hopes to become a pediatric oncologist, says, “Being exposed to so many patients helps me get a better understanding of what the process is like and, and how, as a future health care professional, I can better support these patients on their road to recovery.”
At UST, volunteering gives students a connection to resources, mentors, networks, and social and professional development.
“Having this opportunity opens the doors for them and gives them confidence in their schoolwork and their ability to do other things outside of school,” says Edward Nam, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and Tri Beta advisor. “The more connections being made, the brighter their future.”