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University students as hospice care volunteers

Breathing life into dying patients' hearts

By Wingki Kwok

Being at death’s door is an unwelcome experience.

Serving dying people is a treasured experience.

Pulling dying patients away from sadness and loneliness, voluntary hospice care work provides university students chances to energise care workers in hospitals.

Hospice care aims at giving care to dying patients and their relatives through hospital visits and counselling services.

Mr. Dick Yip, a fresh university graduate, is a hospice care volunteer.

He became a hospice care volunteer when he was a Year 3 psychology student at the University of Hong Kong.

An unpleasant experience motivated him to join the group.

Said he: “My mother was once a cancer patient. I know it is hard to face death.

“During the treatment, the doctor found that she was very ill and the treatment was simply a waste of time and resources.

“The doctor immediately tore up the permit for treatment in front of us and asked my mother to go home and wait. It made us feel hopeless.”

He thought that the hospital staff only cared about patients’ physical needs but not their psychological being. His experience made him a hospice care volunteer.

Life is a bowl of cherries for most university students. Many of them have not even had the experience of suffering.

Working as a hospice care volunteer provides a chance for young people to learn about pain from dying patients.

Mr. Yip said serving dying patients is different from ordinary volunteer work.

Whenever he goes to the hospital, he encounters a completely different atmosphere from that in the campus.

“On the campus, it is full of laughter, while the hospital is silent and lifeless,” he said.

This contrast makes him think of the meaning of life — something university students are not likely to think about.

This volunteer work provides a chance for him to understand misery.

Miss Katie Yeung is a Year 2 philosophy student at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a participant in the short-term hospice programme. She agreed with Mr. Yip.

Said she: “Usually I seldom think of death. When I saw weak patients who had difficulties in communication, I learnt the pain of walking towards the end of life.

“I should treasure life and live with a positive attitude. Though I am still afraid of death. I know what I should do if I encounter the death of my relatives.”

Mr. Yip said university students easily get lost in a rich and joyful school life and forget what they are doing.

Said he: “We often have a lot of desires, while the wish of the dying patients might only be as simple as having a good sleep.

“I think about what I am living for after learning patients’ pain. Playing and enjoyment should not be the aims of life.”

Their major responsibility is to visit hospitals. When visiting patients, Mr. Yip prefers stroking them to chatting.

In doing so, he believes that it strenghtens patients’ will to combat diseases.

Said he: “Since we are more energetic, we can give them a feeling of liveliness and warmth from our powerful hands.

“Also, it shows them that we are not afraid of them.”

Though Mr. Yip said that he encourages his friends to join, not all students are willing.

He said some students refuse to join because they are worried that being with dying patients would upset them.

The Comfort Care Concern Group, the first organisation to provide voluntary hospice care in Hong Kong, teaches volunteers how to handle their emotions.

Mr. Eddie Chan is the programme coordinator of the group.

He said that more university students are becoming hospice care volunteers. Many students actually request further participation once they have joined.

As young people often have little knowledge about hospice care work, the group holds a short-term programme annually called “Summer Youth — A Journey And Energetic Life” — targeting people aged  17 to 24.

Mr. Chan said the programme is effective. Feedback from participants, patients and their families is good.

He said many patients appreciate the volunteers’ creativity. Some even treatd the volunteers as their own children.

Said Miss Yeung: “During one of our hospital visits, a patient suddenly cried at the time we left and told us her story. I can see her loneliness.

“We had made them feel that they were being taken care of and they became happier. I was satisfied after helping them.”

Prof. Joyce Ma is chair of the Department of Social Work at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

She said that although the need of hospice care in Hong Kong is great and it generates positive feedback, university students might refuse to join because they think that it is useless to them.

Said she: “University students are usually realistic. It might be difficult for them to give up their valuable time to serve dying patients without any returns.”

She said serving dying patients is actually rewarding to university students. It is helpful in personal development, especially in value establishment.

Mr. Yip explained his thinking at the time he signed up for voluteer work.

“My only consideration for joining the group was time management,” he said.

Said he: “I wondered whether I should treasure my wonderful school life or spend time in volunteer hospice care work.”

He eventually chose the latter.

“A dying patient may leave shortly. I choose to serve that person now,” said Mr. Yip.

Being a good hospice care volunteer

Besides having patience and an outgoing personality, a good hospice care volunteer should be kind, mature and brave, as one may have to face many unpleasant situations.

Apart from these, Mr. Eddie Chan of the Comfort Care Concern Group said that volunteers must not be psychologically too involved in the work.

Said Mr. Chan: “If the volunteers are too intense, they may be affected emotionally, or sadness will be aroused.

“Besides, some volunteers may try to bear the family burdens of patients, say bearing their financial burdens or taking care of their children. 

“This would lead to unhealthy results.”

In this situation, volunteers should pass the responsibility to other professionals.

“Our only role is to comfort them,” said Mr. Chan. “Volunteer work should always be in present tense.”

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Courtesy of The Comfort Care Concern Group

University students serve dying patients in the programme “Summer Youth”.


Courtesy of The Comfort Care Concern Group

University students prepare gifts for dying patients to cheer them up.