Serving with Compassion-Harvard College Students Brought the Patient Narratives to Life

Photo:Students wrap care packages to send to the patients’ families

It was a Sunday morning at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, Cambridge, when a group of Harvard college students diligently stocked colorful art supplies for a craft-making morning with patients. They are part of Road to Recovery, a Harvard College public service organization dedicated to serving patients with chronic illnesses at the hospital. Volunteers sat next to patients, smiling as they exchanged conversations while assisting patients with cutting and painting to make paper-flower jars.

Making arts is among the various activities that this group of students seeks to connect with the patients undergoing long- term care. On a weekly basis, volunteers individually walk from their Harvard campus to Spaulding to visit at patients’ bedside. Volunteers brought to the patients’ rooms an invigorating energy of youths who aspire to improve patients’ experience while making an impact on the community. In return, the students get to learn about the daily works and challenges of medicine in a clinical setting. While using their interpersonal skills to bring cheer to patients, they can understand what it means to be a future doctor who provides not only the medical services but also compassion.

Linh Nam, a Harvard College junior, first found out about Spaulding Rehab Cambridge as she was doing outpatient rehabilitation following her knee surgery. An osteosarcoma survivor since at age 10, she has undergone multiple reconstructive surgeries in her teenage years following a bone graft in her right femur. Inspired by the opportunity to share her personal experiences with illness and recovery with patients undergoing similar protracted hospital stays, Linh began volunteering regularly over the summer. Having witnessed many heartwarming stories of courage on the part of the patients and their families and also disappointing news of loss and lack of progress, she believed that there was much that Harvard students could learn and contribute in this hospital setting.

Once the semester started, she got in touch with Ernaya Johnson, a classmate, to talk about possibilities of getting other Harvard students involved with this meaningful public service opportunity. Linh and Ernaya pitched the idea of a new student volunteer organization to the Harvard College Undergraduate Council and gained recognition in September 2018 for the new independent student organization that went by the name of Road to Recovery, with the mission of supporting patients at Spaulding Rehab in their recovery process. As Road to Recovery began to recruit more new members, Nhu Dang, a sophomore, joined the organization’s board to develop its social outreach programs. Harvard Road to Recovery is continuing to implement programs to benefit patients and foster student-patients interaction, including care packages development and Sunday with Patients events. “Road to Recovery has been such a supportive community,” said Nhu, who shares that developing social activities on campus and at Spaulding was the highlight of her sophomore year. “We’re glad to be able to connect volunteers with patients, to raise awareness about disability issues on-campus, and to promote social inclusions among patients and the community.”

Road to Recovery volunteers find visiting patients to be rewarding, educational, and transformative. According to Maxwell Ho, a Neuroscience major and aspiring doctor, “As undergraduates, we don’t have much to provide in the way of treatment. Instead, we hope to give the social support and human recognition integral to recovery, but often missing from an overworked healthcare system and staff.” As hospitals around the US become more overcrowded with patients, medical practitioners often fear that they lose touch with the patients, a reality that negatively affects the quality of healthcare that patients receive. By empathetically recognizing the suffering and emotions of patients with chronic health conditions, Road to Recovery volunteers are learning the soft skills that their future medical trainings might not teach. As Jordan, a student volunteer, describes, “I found developing relationships with patients and learning their stories, while being able to share mine, to be most meaningful. I have been able to connect with patients and provide support to them while they are recovering.” By providing this simple act of recognizing the humanity of people who are suffering and struggling, in their own small way, the student volunteers hope to keep the patient narratives alive in a hospital setting.

Photo:Students make arts to send to patients during Arts Night

Besides connecting volunteers to patients, Road to Recovery also organizes on-campus member meetings, arts events, study breaks, and reflection activities to foster a strong volunteer community on campus. In a typical member meeting, students share their experience interacting with patients as well as tips to overcome challenges that arise at the hospital environment. Students actively give feedbacks to improve social events and coordinate logistics, which could be a struggle for a new organization. In the future, students hope to raise more awareness about long-term illnesses and compassion in healthcare. Inviting speakers who have successfully overcame a debilitating chronic illness is among Road to Recovery’s agenda.

Managing a new organization has not been easy-the student board repeatedly went through different experimentations to figure out what works for volunteers, patients, and medical staffs. Despite their concurrently busy schedules as college students, Road to Recovery volunteers have high hopes for the organization and look forward to engaging more. According to

Jeanna Qiu, a Chemical and Physical

Biology major who is soon to apply to

medical schools,

Working together with patients towards a common goal was very fun and a great opportunity to get to know

them better.” “Everything is super

enjoyable,” said Jeanna.

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