Volunteering in the COVID-19 department: Dream or shit job?

January 2020: The news had started to circulate about a virus spreading in China. It was related to SARS and MERS and expected to stay in the east.

February 2020: The news channels were now covering the novel coronavirus spreading outside China. Little by little, it was nearing the borders of the EU.

13.3.2020: The Estonian government declares a state of emergency, University of Tartu cancels regular contact learning, and social media explodes with panic. We all make memes and jokes about toilet paper to better survive the shock.

We are three University of Tartu medical students currently in our fourth year. We are groupmates and see each other daily in classes now, but last spring we were colleagues in a slightly different setting. We were all corona volunteers at Tartu University Hospital in the spring of 2020, and now we’d like to tell you a little about our experiences and what we think about volunteering in Estonia in general.

How did we decide to become volunteers at Tartu University Hospital?

Iina Gyldén
Iina with the mask mark on her face. Photo from a private collection

Iina Gyldén: Not long after the state of emergency was declared, I heard from my classmates that Tartu University Hospital, our home hospital, was looking for volunteers among medical and nursing students to help with the new additional infection control measures.

A cynical person could point out that that was a glorified way of saying they were looking for cleaning staff and they wouldn’t be wrong. However, what that simple dismissal fails to see is that when trying to keep a new virus like this in control in a hospital environment the system needs every free pair of hands to do that work.

At that time I had been entertaining the idea of finding a place to volunteer at for a good while already. I am recovering from a burnout and somewhere along that journey I had started hearing people repeatedly mention the importance of volunteering in regard to psychological and emotional well-being.

I now had spare time and already knew I’d be staying in Estonia for the spring instead of returning to my native Finland. In the end, my decision to volunteer was made by the simple fact that they were looking for people to do it; they needed hands and mine were free.

Benjamin Lee: At the start of the pandemic, Tartu University Hospital had converted their emergency department into dedicated COVID wards for first point of contact, where all incoming suspected patients were tested, treated, and quarantined. With a lot of free time during this period (class schedules and lectures were in limbo at this point), a couple of my medical friends and I decided to sign up for the work.

Being the young and inexperienced students that we were, the thought of being up front and close to the action sounded quite exciting. After all, what better way to spend our free time than to help out? I can recall fidgeting at home every morning, in anticipation of the news and state of the breakout. I felt that being able to help out in one way or another was an important outlet for all the restlessness and uncertainty surrounding me. Although I was not qualified in any way to assist doctors, I was content with the opportunity to contribute to the medical field and help alleviate some of the burden nurses had.

Azizah Bello: I can’t believe that it’s already been a year since the global pandemic started. I still remember returning home from the university hospital, thinking about the lesson that was planned for the next day. I think that we were supposed to practice auscultating lungs on actual patients. Not too long after my arrival, the email telling us that classes were cancelled appeared. That was the very weekend that Estonia’s nationwide lockdown was announced.

The request for volunteers came as a silver lining for me – a chance to maintain something resembling a routine when the whole world had basically shut down and eradicated everyone else’s. I initially thought that I would be fine with some “temporary” online learning, but it soon became apparent that that wasn’t the case.

Declining mental health aside, I saw it as an opportunity to get some hospital experience outside of the classroom. The role wasn’t clinical at all to say the least, but it was a chance to see how some of the hospital staff work together, interact with each other and observe the atmosphere that was generated amongst the chaos. I got to become more familiar with certain parts of the hospital that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about if I had never crossed the intangible boundary separating “students” and “staff”.

What did our job at the hospital include and how was the reception? What about safety measures – were we scared of working so close to the virus?

Benjamin Lee: Our roles in the department mainly involved cleaning and disinfecting the common areas, toilets, CT scan room, and all wards that previously had patients in them – more specifically, wiping down all contact surfaces, mopping the floors, throwing the trash and replacing the bed linens.

Iina Gyldén: In a nutshell, we were doing all the extra work that needed to be done because the infection control measures had been amped up. And we were also sort of handymen; if something needed to be done we were usually available to do it.

Azizah Bello and Benjamin Lee
Azizah and Benjamin in the monitoring / rest room (where they can check the status of patient rooms). Unlike nowadays,
mask wearing was only enforced inside the emergency department. Photo from a private collection

Azizah Bello: The actual work itself wasn’t too taxing, especially considering how low the numbers were throughout last March and April. There were often long breaks between patients arriving and leaving isolation rooms.

The Emergency Department staff were really nice and some of them even explained aspects of the situation to us in English (for those of us who were not fluent in Estonian).

I noticed certain miniscule aspects of the Estonian culture that I hadn’t encountered before, like someone saying, “Head isu!” to people eating when they entered the breakroom. I found it really wholesome and felt like I was included in the camaraderie that existed amongst the staff.

Benjamin Lee: Attending a day of training beforehand was compulsory to learn all the proper techniques for disinfecting infectious wards and how to properly protect ourselves with the full PPE (personal protection equipment), which usually includes: 1-2 pair of gloves, a medical cap (hair net), PPE gown, medical apron, shoe coverings, goggles, and, of course, a mask or respirator! 

Trust me, it was not fun having to put them on and wearing them for hours on end! Fortunately, we were always paired up with another student, so we would always work in tandem and help one another. The one thing I appreciated the most (apart from the occasional free food) working in the hospital, was the unexpected warmness and kindness shown by all the nurses and doctors we met.

Over time, I slowly learnt my way around the department and it started to feel like a fulfilling and purposeful job. Night shifts (11 pm – 7 am) were also an interesting experience of the job. Having never worked a night shift before, my body had to get used to the change in sleeping patterns, although we were allowed to sleep in the break rooms too (which were a lot cozier than I expected) when there was no work to be done!

Azizah Bello: As someone who doesn’t have the best pair of lungs, my parents were understandably reluctant to allow me to sign myself up for such a thing: volunteering to work in the very location that I should be avoiding – the emergency department that potential COVID patients were being sent to from all over southern Estonia.

I also wondered if I had made the right decision to agree to work in that environment; I secretly wished that I would be declined the role and that the places had been filled when I sent the email offering myself up. My mind was consumed by a frustrating mix of contrasting emotions, comprising a wish to help out and support those working on the front line but also wanting to stay safe at home, away from being a potential patient in my dorm, with family only being reachable via phone and nothing else. In the end, I sent the email on a whim, with the aim of adding a little bit of spice to my mundane life. Granted, that wasn’t the most selfless of decisions.

Looking back, it feels like the country’s reaction to the situation was almost comical when you compare the number of cases that we had back then to those later on, especially in winter. But I don’t think that that was necessarily a bad thing. All the extra precautions made it so that if one were to work somewhere during a pandemic, the hospital would be the safest place, because everyone is more likely to follow the rules.

Iina Gyldén: Yes, someone could call what we did a “shit job”. But for me, at least in spring 2020, it was a dream job.

We are all international students and none of us have roots in Estonia. How was the experience of volunteering as someone who is uncertain about their Estonian language skill or as a non-native in a fully Estonian environment?

Azizah Bello and a fellow medical student volunteer
Azizah and a fellow medical student volunteer. Photo from a private collection

Azizah Bello: I’d like to address the elephant in the room – the language barrier! I saw volunteering as an opportunity for some language practice. Describing my proficiency in the Estonian language as “shoddy” is one of many words I would use, so I thought I’d be able to level up via some extra immersion (since being in the country wasn’t immersive enough, I guess).

I had studied Estonian up to B1 level, although I wouldn’t say that all four language skills (speaking, writing, reading, listening) were at that level. For the most part, I was able to get by with my limited vocabulary, but I do feel like I would’ve been able to get more out of the experience if I could overcome the barrier.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get anywhere close to the results I was anticipating, but it did act as some form of motivation to keep me learning the language for an extra semester.

Benjamin Lee: Having a somewhat limited knowledge of the Estonian language was definitely a major challenge for me, but despite my poor Estonian medical vocabulary and erroneous sentences, the local staff around me were always helpful and friendly!

Azizah Bello: As someone who is very noticeably not Estonian, I did sometimes feel people’s eyes on me as I cleaned the rooms while the staff took breaks. They were looks that were usually carried out by the general public, when I was walking or taking public transport, not for places I had gotten used to, like the medical faculty or the hospital.

It was a reality check that reminded me where I was, and that the presence of darker-skinned ethnic minorities was uncommon in the country – a fact that I had forgotten, because for the most part in the hospital, it felt like my existence there was normal, and that I was welcome. As someone who can be overly self-conscious, it made me slightly apprehensive to work in some areas we cleaned at the other ward. Nonetheless, the staff in this department were also mostly pleasant or even indifferent towards my presence, which was greatly appreciated.

And did we experience any unexpected benefits from volunteering?

Iina Gyldén: As an international medical student with an introverted nature, tendency to overwork, and passionate hobbies that often seem to conflict with my field of study, life can get a little lonely. Top that off with a very troublesome, rocky path of burnout recovery and you have a textbook case of a millennial at high risk of taking some heavy hits from crises like corona. In March I was truly scared of how I would survive these “exceptional circumstances” that lay ahead. Yet a month later, I found myself happier and more grateful than I had been in years. It was amazing!

I started to realize then that all the claims and testimonials and studies telling me that volunteering was a very powerful way of increasing one’s well-being and boosting mental health were probably up to something real.

Volunteering sounds pretty incredible, almost too good to be true. Is there any science behind it or can we make an educated guess?

Personal protection equipment
Wearing full personal protection equipment before entering the COVID area. Photo from a private collection

Iina Gyldén: Studies have shown that volunteering is especially beneficial for older people and when practiced frequently. There is also some scientific and plenty of anecdotal and empirical evidence suggesting young people can also reap great benefits from it.

Personally, I suppose the level of satisfaction and increase in quality of life must also depend on one’s temperament and personal history, life situation, and the society and people around them. Believing in the benefits of volunteering and intentionally seeking a meaningful place or action for oneself can’t hurt your chances either.

Volunteering has been associated with, among other things, cumulative increase in overall happiness and perceived quality of life, amount and strength of social connections, and increased social well-being.

Personally, I feel I experienced an increased sense of capability, belonging, and meaning. That I would use those three words specifically to describe the feeling I got was a little puzzling to me. I am a medical student – shouldn’t I already feel capable, connected to my colleagues and field? Shouldn’t I already know that I’m studying for a very meaningful profession indeed?

We might often overlook our own needs if they seem fulfilled on the outside. Even when it looks like a person is motivated, studying or working hard for concrete goals that bring meaning to their lives while maintaining a social network or at the bare minimum interacting regularly with their classmates and colleagues, it might be that they still feel unfulfilled and isolated. Sometimes, it can be difficult for the person to realize their own situation too.

International students in particular are more vulnerable to feeling like an outsider and having difficulties finding their tribe. The same goes for students in curricula such as clinical medicine, where we have a little room to personalize our studies and experiment. The pandemic has effectively shut down the places people tend to gather and hang out, cancelled many hobbies, and made socializing suspicious and potentially irresponsible. Distance learning can eat away our confidence in our skills and knowledge. A common factor for all previous conditions is the feeling of not quite being in control of our life and well-being, and this can well be cumulative and lead to a feeling of one’s life being completely out of control. In other words, we feel like we don’t have a choice.

Now I have not managed to find a study of this, but I do believe that one of the most powerful things about volunteering is that it is voluntary. It is something we choose to do. We choose to give time, energy, and resources for the good of others. Humans are pack animals, and we’re wired to get satisfaction when we’re being useful to other human beings. And that satisfaction, I believe, is amplified by the fact that we don’t have to do it but we still choose to. It makes us feel good about ourselves too. The voluntary nature of the work also means we’re more likely to end up doing the work with more like-minded people with similar values. At the very least, you all have your decision to volunteer in common. Receiving appreciation for your work goes a long way. And practically, doing the work can really boost confidence and make one believe they are capable or realize how much they already know.

Overall, how would we summarise our experience and do we have any parting words to the readers?

Benjamin Lee: Volunteering to work at the hospital was a very rewarding experience. I made a lot of new Estonian friends (including other volunteers) and gained invaluable experience in many ways. Working in a hospital for the very first time also provided me with a glimpse of the kind of environment I will one day be a part of.

Azizah Bello: Overall, the volunteering job was the first of many ways I recognised that being a healthcare student was particularly beneficial in these circumstances, which I was and still am grateful for. I was able to experience the hospital in unique conditions, and I am very thankful that I was able to somehow contribute a little to the nationwide effort to tackle the spread of COVID at the beginning stages of the pandemic. Apart from getting a taste of working in a hospital environment, I see that especially when I returned the following semester for practical classes, Tartu University Hospital became a place where I felt like I belonged.

Iina Gyldén: All the benefits I mentioned earlier don’t only apply in times like these, when uncertainties and complications are amplified. It is already clear that the pandemic has taken a massive toll on the well-being of young adults.  I’m afraid we as human beings and as a society will be struggling with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic for many years to come, and a big part of that is the mental health deficit it has created. This is why I think it is extremely important for us all to start thinking what we can do to help alleviate the coming crisis. Part of that is creating a toolbox of actions everyone can take to support their own well-being and mental health or aid in recovery.

With this in mind, I would like to encourage everyone to share their volunteering experiences and information on volunteering opportunities. Take a look at Vabatahtlike Värav to see what’s happening currently. Ask around your faculty or workplace, consult your local friends and different communities and organizations that feel close to you. Even if there’s nothing cooking right now, having a bunch of eager volunteers can be just what is needed to start something new!

We would like to end with a big thank-you to Kliinikum Puhastusteenused (especially our direct supervisor, Ivi Lentsius!), the COVID-19 EMO staff, and all our fellow volunteers! It was great working with you all!

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