Make room for our medical student volunteers

20 September 2018

As an undergraduate, second year medical student Victor Vuong, decided to venture along to one of the volunteering expos in Canberra. He was ambling through the stalls when a nice lady by the name of Liz called out to him with the invite of cookies. She was the Volunteer Coordinator at Ronald McDonald House at the time. The House features guestrooms and other facilities for families with seriously ill children in the hospital. Victor and Liz began chatting about his interest in Medical Science, the undergraduate degree he was studying at ANU. Liz explained that in addition to the facilities provided by Ronald McDonald House, there was also a Family Room, a homely space, complete with toys and a crackling fire in the corner. Victor was sold by the idea of volunteering there and signed up. 

"It’s a very warm and homely environment," says Victor, "It’s right opposite the Paediatrics ward. You can imagine that it’s really off-putting for the children to be in a clinical environment. And especially for the families, they need time to recharge."

The volunteers are instrumental to making the children and their families feel at home; they make them tea or coffee, chat with them or just welcome them to sit in and have some quiet time. Victor explains that he was in a really unique position to support the volunteering program at Ronald McDonald House. “I started when I was an undergrad and I’ve been a volunteer for three years now. Once I started Med School, I thought this is a fantastic opportunity for people who are really interested in paediatrics to get to know the families, to see what is really involved, not just for the patient but for the family as well. Previously, the Room was opened up one or two nights a week, so I proposed the idea of opening it up on extra nights. Now with over 30 medical student volunteers, we’re rostered almost every evening.” 

"Everyone really enjoys it. The stories put into perspective what we, as aspiring doctors, can expect when we’re later on the wards." 

Victor, over his three years, has met many different families, some from further afield whose children have chronic diseases and must travel to Canberra for treatment. They can be farmers from near Bega or Goulburn and they’ve had to make many sacrifices to bring their children to Canberra. Victor realises that this is a huge ordeal not only for them but for the other generations of the family who may be called upon to help work the farm. 

"We have one day of teaching a week at the hospital but we're never exposed to patients like this and I think it's great to see. During our lectures, they always say support from the families is one of the best ways to keep treatment going but when you see it in practice, I can see why you need to have the family on board. It’s such a privilege to see very intimate moments between the children and their parents. It may not be in a clinical setting but it’s still in the hospital and you get to see that really close bond."

There are also support mechanisms to cope with the sometimes harrowing realities that the volunteers face. "When we volunteer, we volunteer in pairs. It’s always good to talk to your “buddy”. In a way, even consultants have a tough time, they say they debrief with their peers and we talk with our buddies in the same way."

The Ronald McDonald Family Room is a haven of board games, cartoons, and warm drinks which helps create a sense of familiarity in a foreign environment. 

Spending time in the Family Room is a learning curve for the medical students who volunteer there too. Not only do they develop greater insights into doctor-patient relationships but as Victor jokes, “I’ve caught up with all my Ben 10 series and regularly get schooled at Connect 4 by five year old kids.” 

If you would like to discover more about Ronald McDonald House and the programs it offers, visit their website at: https://www.rmhc.org.au/our-programs/houses/canberra