Student volunteers embrace emotional intensity of Intensive Care

Susan Cameron (à gauche), infirmière-enseignante au sein de l’Unité des soins intensifs médicaux-chirurgicaux, est en compagnie de l'étudiante bénévole Rabbia Akhtar-Tariq devant le salon des familles de l'USIMC, où des bénévoles accueillent les visiteurs et les guident au sein de l'Unité.
Susan Cameron (à gauche), infirmière-enseignante au sein de l’Unité des soins intensifs médicaux-chirurgicaux, est en compagnie de l'étudiante bénévole Rabbia Akhtar-Tariq devant le salon des familles de l'USIMC, où des bénévoles accueillent les visiteurs et les guident au sein de l'Unité.

One summer day last year, Rabbia Akhtar-Tariq, a McGill University psychology student, was volunteering in the JGH’s Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit (MSICU), when she was introduced to a patient who ended up making a lasting impression on her.

Since she spoke Urdu, Ms. Akhtar-Tariq was asked to help communicate with the patient, who was in her 50s and had no family or loved ones to help her.

What slowly grew between them was a deeper relationship than Ms. Akhtar-Tariq would ever have believed possible—a key reason for her decision to return this past summer for her third stint in the MSICU, even with all of its heavy emotional demands.

During her shifts, Ms. Akhtar-Tariq would listen to the patient and comfort her, as she opened up, detailing her history of trauma and abuse.

“You’re my child, you’re my baby,” the woman would tell her.

“She had this yearning for a human connection,” Ms. Akhtar-Tariq now recalls. “I became like a family member to her.”

Sometimes, Ms. Akhtar-Tariq would daydream about taking the patient out for walks, once she was stable enough, so she could feel the warmth of the sun again.

“One of the doctors would tell me, ‘Every time you come into the room, there’s a glow on her face,’” she remembers. “It was as if I breathed life into her.”

Sadly, after a month, the woman passed away. Which is how Ms. Akhtar-Tariq came to attend her first funeral. “She changed my perspective on life,” she says. “At my age, you don’t often meet someone who’s dying. The idea of death usually seems so far away.”

Rabbia Akhtar-Tariq, a student volunteer in Medical-Surgical Intensive Care, assists a patient’s family member into the unit.
Rabbia Akhtar-Tariq, a student volunteer in Medical-Surgical Intensive Care, assists a patient’s family member into the unit.

Ms. Akhtar-Tariq, 23, returned to the MSICU as a student volunteer as part of the ICU Bridge Program, first implemented at the JGH in fall 2016.

“The goal is to create a bridge between the family members, who are waiting outside in the family room, and the people inside the MSICU,” explains Susan Cameron, Nursing Educator at the MSICU.

“The program enabled me to discover my emotional strength,” Ms. Akhtar-Tariq says, adding that she now also serves on its marketing team. “I never thought I’d be able to handle such heavy emotional situations.”

In most cases, student volunteers are responsible for assisting ICU visitors, rather than patients. Whether greeting visitors, escorting them to their loved ones, or leading them out of the unit, their presence helps families feel comfortable and safe.

As a locked unit, the MSICU can be accessed only by family members who use the phone outside the unit, but this can be intimidating, adds Ms. Cameron. Having volunteers present makes the process easier, since a student’s ID card provides access.

“At first, I was amazed at how readily people opened up emotionally to a volunteer,” says Ms. Akhtar-Tariq. “They would come back the following week and thank me for listening. I never realized how much that support could mean to them.”

Over the summer, 44 university students were assigned to the JGH’s MSICU. They work in pairs for four-hour blocs, from 8:00 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Three hours of the shift are spent helping families, and during the remaining hour, the student can shadow any team member of the MSICU.

“They get to watch whatever we’re doing,” says Ms. Cameron, who also hosts an orientation and training session for the groups at the beginning of the volunteering semester. “Whether it’s a massive transfusion protocol or medical rounds, they’re allowed to be there and ask questions.”

In particular, Ms. Akhtar-Tariq enjoyed observing the multidisciplinary rounds. “The whole team comes together to focus on patient care,” she says. “I love that about the staff here: Everyone supports one another and works collaboratively. I always wondered how the ICU deals with all of the emotion, and now I realize they’re each other’s strength.”

Having the students around in turn makes the MSICU team stronger, says Ms. Cameron. “They’re such a big help. We notice it when they’re not here. They’ve become a part of our team.”

Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon

Two team members of the ICU Bridge Program ran in Montreal’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon, the largest running event in Quebec, on September 22 and 23.

Adamo Donovan, ICU Bridge Program Co-Founder and Lauriane Forest, a member of its fundraising team, raised more than $1,700 for the program’s projects.

“The race was really exciting,” says Mr. Donovan, who ran 42.2 kilometers in three hours and 52 minutes. “It has been a goal of mine to do a marathon and it was great to do it for such a great cause, with family and friends encouraging me.”

The money will be used to purchase an iPad for the ICU Diaries Program. The initiative involves family, volunteers and staff electronically documenting a patient’s stay in the ICU, from pictures of the patient’s progress to updates on family members’ lives, to offer as a momento upon discharge. The program is offered at the JGH, but the funds raised during the marathon will be donated to the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Mr. Donovan has registered for next year’s race, and hopes to bring together a bigger team to take part, including ICU volunteers and staff.

 

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