Volunteer hours are another vital portion of the PA school application. Unlike my last post, I'm not going to list all of the different ways to gain volunteer hours because you can pretty much find volunteer opportunities in anything you are passionate about if you look hard enough. I'm also not going to talk number of volunteer hours in this post because I think the quantity of your hours is irrelevant in comparison to the quality of your hours. Instead, I want to talk about my different experiences volunteering to serve as an example. This is the only time I'll ever say LESS is MORE. Do not volunteer for 8 million different organizations. Chose a few of your favorites or even just one and really make a difference. There's nothing worse than an applicant that's a member of every club or organization in the book just for the sake of putting it on paper. If you can't elaborate on how your presence really made a lasting impact on others, you are doing something wrong. Fewer meaningful hours means so much more than an abundance of nonsense.
I volunteered for a Diabetes & Endocrinology office in my hometown during the summer Monday-Friday from 9-5pm. I found this opportunity through a family friend, so I feel like now is a good time to suggest using your resources wisely. I'm sure almost everyone knows at least one person in their lives that works in a doctor's office or a hospital in some way and one contact is all you need. There's no shame in Facebook blasts either to inquire if any of your friends or family members know of any opportunities available. Use what you have and who you know is my point. Anyways, at the office, I was responsible for entering medical records into the computer, since they were making the transition from paper charts to electronic medical records (EMR). I learned a ton about how to use an EMR platform, how to use medical billing and coding, how to contact other outpatient offices and insurance companies, and how to interpret different types of medical documentation (reading notes in the process of course for learning purposes). So yes, a lot of my job was office work and organizational tasks, but soon enough I became friendly with the physician's in the office and was able to tag along with them to see real patients. I was able to help out with patient surveys and listen to patient encounters, which is a good example why you should never turn down a volunteer opportunity in medicine, even if you aren't doing exactly what you want to be doing. Be friendly. Be kind. Be helpful. Make a difference no matter where you are or what you are doing. It was definitely exhausting working all summer for no pay, but the experience was worth the effort and summer sacrifice. Plus, it was a good glimpse into rotation life (all work, no pay… it's part all part of the process).
I volunteered at Robert Wood Johnson for the day for a mass casualty simulation. I found this opportunity via an email blast to biology students at Rutgers. See, not all opportunities are difficult to come by. This one literally landed in my inbox unprovoked. I arrived at the hospital and was given a patient ID number and instructions on where to go and what to do all day. It was interesting being cycled through the hospital from the triage bay to the CT scanner to the OR etc. just as a real patient would be in a mass causality situation. This is something all hospitals do, especially a Level 1 Trauma center like RWJ, in some way, shape or form as preparation for the real thing. It certainly did not show long term commitment, but it was a really awesome thing to be a part of and certainly made for good topic of conversation in an interview.
I volunteered for the Special Olympics of New Jersey with my sister multiple times during the summer. I found this opportunity online simply by googling local ways to volunteer for the special needs population. Pick a specific population that interests you or that you have a personal connection with and see what you can find. You don't have to know exactly what's out there already. You might be pleasantly surprised when you come across an opportunity that you had no idea even existed. On volunteer days, I was paired up with two athletes and was responsible for taking them to each of the various sporting stations. I assisted in game play and was able to get involved in all of the action that sports entails. It's really humbling to work with such bright eyed humans. Their outlook on life and having fun really helped me not sweat the small stuff along my journey to that acceptance letter. The facility was located super close to my house and was super convenient hours wise, so it seemed more like a hobby than work. The more you enjoy what you're doing the more effort you will put in, so keep that in the back of your mind. I was also able to attend the National Special Olympics, which was held in NJ one year, alongside one of my soon-to-be (at the time) PA faculty members. I'll elaborate on that experience in another post a bit later.
My all-time favorite experience volunteering was spent as a patient cuddler at the Children's Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. I found this opportunity online as well just by searching my local hospital's volunteer page and reaching out to the department head directly via email. The real motivator behind this one stemmed from another experience. I shadowed my Aunt who is a nurse practitioner in the John Hopkins NICU prior to PA school. The baby fever was real from there to say the least, and the neonatal population will always hold a special place in my heart. Almost every Sunday for two years, I went to the hospital for three hours and supported newborns in their first weeks of life. Many of the newborns that I worked with unfortunately were either born addicted to drugs or with a chronic or life-threatening disability. It's certainly not an environment for everyone and not the most uplifting of methods to gain both volunteer hours and patient care experience, but it truly gave me an all new perspective of what it means to be a healthcare provider. I was able to hold, rock to sleep, perform skin-to-skin, and play with the newborns for as long as I wished when their parents needed a break or were unavailable to be at the hospital during the day due to work or social reasons. There were also older children on my floor that I was responsible for assisting during activity time, which was run by the child life specialist. We sang songs, finger painted, played games etc. Most of the older children I worked with had chronic disabilities that require long term rehabilitation and hospital assistance. It's difficult for children to be cooped up in a hospital room for hours on end, so any opportunity to remove them from that environment and just do "normal kid things" is so greatly appreciated. I also had the opportunity to attend one of the special events held for all patients at the hospital. I was asked by my supervisor to assist for their annual prom where all of the patients and staff dress up in formal attire, take prom photos, eat food, and dance (all while under the supervision of medical professionals). It was an awesome experience to be a part of and I never would have been involved if it weren't for my volunteering position. The sign-up process to be a hospital volunteer is very intense (for good reasons) and takes a long time to complete. This deters a lot of students that are in a time crunch for hours, but if you have the time and you plan ahead you should look into your local hospital's opportunities. It took me several months to get all of my paperwork in (background checks, training sessions, PPD, N95 mask training, vaccines etc.), but I promise you the patience is worth it. This particular hospital had so many other opportunities in addition to patient cuddling that I found extremely unique such as aqua therapy! What is more impactful than helping disabled children take their first steps again in a pool alongside an occupational therapist? By the size of this paragraph alone, you can tell how passionate I was about being a patient cuddler, and to this day I encourage others to get involved in such a beautiful experience.
One other thing I'd like to mention in this post are medical mission trips. Gaining a global understanding of healthcare can show both enthusiasm for something bigger than yourself and maturity. They can be super pricey depending on where you go, which is why I never did one, but if the opportunity presented itself, I think it's a great option for volunteer hours. I do feel that one short trip alone is not enough by itself and fails to show long term dedication to one cause. PA school and being a physician assistant in general is essentially volunteering yourself long term to the needs of others, so it's important for schools to see that same dedication demonstrated through your volunteer work. In short, I think medical mission trips are great. I think they get the job done. I think they're special. But at the same time, I don't think you have to break the bank to embellish your application.
Whatever you may chose, do it well. And your volunteer work by NO means has to be healthcare related, but it certainly is a big plus! How you chose to volunteer your time helps show programs your interests. It has the ability to provide applicants with anything from a unique personal statement to great talking points in an interview. I personally feel that my ability to talk about my passion for patient cuddling in particular made my application unique, and standing out in a big stack of papers is important. Don't just cross volunteering off your list like another task on your to do list. In helping others achieve their goals, they in return will help you achieve yours. Find something you enjoy and go for it. Do what makes your soul happy.