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Column originally published Dec 13, 2005

Things To Consider If You Volunteer At A Hospital

Question: I am a retired school librarian. I am planning to do some volunteer work at our local hospital. I wonder whether there is any precaution that I should take. I love to work with children (as you can imagine, from many years of work in school), I may even go to the paediatric floor to read to them.


I am glad to hear that you are planning to volunteer your time to visit patients in the hospital. Some of the most important unsung heroes in Canada are our volunteers. Many organizations would not be able to function without the contribution of their volunteers.

You will have a special role because of your experience as a school librarian. Children admitted to the hospital would definitely benefit from your visits. Some may be lonesome if their family cannot visit, especially if both parents are working. I am sure they would love your company, your story-reading, and you may be able to help them with homework. Many children need to continue their education while they receive treatment at the hospital.

Visiting patients at the hospital carries a unique risk. Many patients have illnesses that can reduce their immune system, making them susceptible to infections from anyone around, including hospital staffs as well as visitors. Similarly, some patients carry dangerous germs, including viruses that we still don’t have effective medication to treat, or bacteria which are resistant to most, if not all, antibiotics.

The first and most important issue for anyone visiting the hospital is to make sure that he/she doesn’t bring any harmful germ to the patients, or take any dangerous germs home. Of all the knowledge that we have gained from infection control in hospitals in the last few decades, the most important one is this: most germs are passed from one person to another through the hands.

Many hospitals already have policy for visitors such that when they enter the hospital, they have to clean their hands with a special alcohol rinse at the entrance. In this way, you basically kill off almost all potentially harmful germs that are on your hands. Most hospitals also have policy that staffs or volunteers either wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water, or use alcohol rinse before leaving a patient’s room. This is to make sure that bad germs wouldn’t be passed from one patient to another. Before you leave the hospital, it is a good idea to once again use the alcohol rinse to prevent bringing harmful germs home.

Hospitals also have policy for isolating some patients for one reason or another. All visitors and volunteers need to follow these rules. If a patient is coughing, germs can be released in fine particles during the cough. Research shows that these particles won’t travel more than one meter (or three feet) from the patient. Therefore, staying that distance from the patients who are coughing would be quite safe.

I hope my discussion here doesn’t deter you from volunteering at the hospital. There are very few documented cases where volunteers became sick. However, the important thing is being vigilant about it.

There are also vaccines that you should consider before starting your volunteer work. Many hospitals have policy requiring volunteers to show evidence of immunization against certain infectious diseases. You should check with your hospital’s policy.

Since you are retired, you are likely around the age where the pneumococcal vaccine Pneumovax is recommended. This vaccine boosts our immunity to 23 most common strains of a group of bacteria called Pneumococcus that can cause serious pneumonia and other infections. You should talk to your doctor about getting this vaccine very soon.

In addition, you should consider getting the flu shot every year in the fall, if you haven’t started doing that while you were a teacher. Influenza is a virus that causes flu epidemic each winter across North America. Influenza vaccine, also commonly known as flu shot, is recommended for anyone over 65, as well as those with serious chronic illness.

I have a word of caution here. When you get the flue shot, it doesn’t protect you completely. You may still get infected, although you may not develop all the serious symptoms of high fever, aching, lethargy, running nose, and cough. The period of time that you are most infectious, and at the highest risk of passing the virus to others, is shortly before you develop the flu symptoms. Therefore, if you feel that you are coming down with something, stay away from the hospital for a day or two, to make sure that you are not developing influenza, so that you won’t pass the virus to patients who are already sick with something else.

I should mention here about a new whooping cough vaccine that you should consider getting. You may remember that whooping cough vaccine is given to young children, and the last dose is usually just before they start elementary school. In recent years, a new and improved version of whooping cough vaccine was introduced which has very little side effect. Research has shown that this vaccine is safe and effective for adults also.

As it turns out, whooping cough can infect children and adults alike. In young children, whooping cough produces the typical serious cough spasms. However, in adults, the cough is usually milder, but can last for months. As a result, adults with whooping cough are usually not recognized, and they continue to cough and spread the germs to young children. Children who are immunized with whooping cough vaccine are somewhat protected from the infection, but adults who were vaccinated many years ago have lost their immunity, and they are actually more at risk of infection, and passing the germs to children.

Therefore, this new whooping cough vaccine (in combination with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines) is now recommended for adults to boost their immunity against whooping cough. You may want to receive this vaccine in the near future, and this will prevent you from spreading the germ to your grandchildren also.

Finally, your hospital may require you to get tested for tuberculosis (TB). TB is not a common infection nowadays, but it was much more common when you were young. Many were infected without knowing it. When we get older, our immunity declines, and the TB germs hiding in the lungs can start to multiply, and cause disease which can spread to others. A skin test can tell whether a person has been exposed to TB, or has an active infection that can endanger others.

If you take these precautions, I am sure you will have a great time which will not only help patients, but will also enrich your life.