Pealing laughter, healing hands: How volunteers bring cheer to patients

From ‘Clownseling’ to palliative care, hospital helpers are giving the sick and despairing something to look forward to.

health Updated: Jul 09, 2017 08:40 IST
Anonna Dutt and Roshni Nair
Hospital,Hospital volunteers,Clownseling
‘Clownselors’ use mime, drama and toys to engage paediatric parents at the Chacha Nehru children’s hospital (CNBC) in New Delhi.(Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

Every Saturday, Sheetal Agarwal paints her face and dresses up like a clown. With balloons in hand and a group of volunteers in tow, she heads to a Delhi-government run children’s hospital to play with sick children.

Medical clowning boosts recovery by uplifting mood. “When we play with the children, for a while they forget that they are in a hospital, they laugh and have fun,” said Sheetal, who gave up her career as a sociology and social anthropology professor to visit Chacha Nehru Bal Chikitsalaya (CNBC) most weekends.

The team use mime so they don’t disturb staff and patients who want to sleep. “We use balloons as a prop and perform mimes like letting the balloon go, following it, tumbling around and it makes the children and their parents laugh,” she said.

Sheetal started the initiative a year ago, after returning from a retreat in Ahmedabad, where she met someone who volunteered for a similar initiative in Baroda. “There was no one doing it in Delhi so I read up about medical clowning, asked around 30 friends and started this volunteering initiative,” she said.

“Child-friendly activities bring down stress levels and make recovery easier. Children start eating better and start moving earlier after recovery. It also relaxes children going in to surgery ,” said Dr Anup Mohta, medical director, CNBC. Next, the group plans to start volunteering at Kalawati Saran hospital, one of Asia’s biggest children’s hospitals.

Software engineer Khushboo Dhube, 24, volunteers at CNBC, using balloons and funny wigs to make the little patients laugh. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

At 75, Halima Aurangabadkar is the oldest volunteer at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Centre (TMC). For four hours a day, five days a week, she divides her time between the general ward and palliative care unit of this cancer research and treatment facility. She’s been doing this for 24 years.

“I distribute free food and snacks once every three months, help patients and their families get around the hospital, and do palliative counselling,” says Aurangabadkar, who is also assistant director of patient care services at the Cancer Patients Aid Association (CPAA).

Palliative counselling, she says, is by far the toughest part of her job. “Listening to and motivating senior patients – many of whom express a disinterest in life post-diagnosis – is very taxing,” she says. “When I get home, I just sit in my room, put on the fan, and do nothing for an hour.”

Also hard is dealing with patients’ whose relatives haven’t told them they have cancer. “Some patients don’t even know where they are. Sometimes caretakers want me to gradually break the news to them.”

Then there are individual volunteers like Stephen Gideon, whose ‘why’ story is no less worthy of merit. “I’d volunteered to keep myself occupied because I had no job after returning from the Gulf in 2002. I didn’t think I’d stay with it for so long, but here I am,” smiles the 70-year-old. Like Aurangabadkar, Gideon spends three or four hours at TMC, five days a week. He mans the helpline and helps patients’ families with paperwork. “It gives me something worthwhile to do every day,” he says.

Sheetal Agarwal with friends who also volunteer every Saturday at CNBC. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)
“Palliative counselling is the toughest part of my job. When I get back home, I just sit in my room, put on the fan, and do nothing for an hour,” says Mumbai volunteer Halima Aurangabadkar.

TMC sees about 500 patients a day, of which roughly 100 are new admissions. “Nearly half our volunteers are retirees and homemakers,” says TMC’s senior PRO SH Jafri, who also oversees the programme. “Those cannot be physically present, contribute by arranging picnics and entertainment, and distributing food and gifts.” Volunteers are given hands-on and on-the-job training and also distributed across the blood/sample collection and accounts sections.

Although TMC’s high rate of admissions and follow-ups sees it getting more helping hands, private hospitals aren’t without volunteers either. Jogita Jagwani, 45, has been volunteering at south Mumbai’s Breach Candy hospital, twice a week, for 21 years.

“I mostly counsel patients and caregivers about diet and care at home. In a recent cases, a boy in chemotherapy was agitated, so I provided extensive counselling, which involved talking to him over an extended period,” she says.

Jagwani is part of V Care Foundation, which provides emotional support to cancer patients and their caregivers. Apart from TMC and Breach Candy, it also serves patients at Mumbai’s Jaslok, Lilavati and Nanavati hospitals.

“The induction is stringent. There is a training manual all volunteers adhere to. New volunteers accompany seniors to hospitals as part of the three-month on-the-job training program. Apart from this, they are imparted soft skills and taught certain dos and don’ts,” says V Care founder Vandana Gupta, a stage-three Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor who set up V Care in 1993 .

“The most important rule is to never bring your biases or expectations into your interactions with patients. This includes being empathetic irrespective of whether someone is vegetarian or non-vegetarian, Hindu or Muslim, rich or poor,” explains Jagwani. “We also never provide advice unless it is solicited.”

“It’s nice to have someone sit you down, get you snacks, even lighten the mood when you’re worried in crowded, chaotic hospitals,” says 59-year-old Sangeeta Shevde from Aurangabad, whose youngest granddaughter is admitted at TMC for leukemia.

First Published: Jul 07, 2017 22:32 IST