Volunteering and lending a helping hand during the pandemic

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Kaiser Permanente was forced to pause its volunteer services program in Oregon and Southwest Washington, leaving the program with an uncertain future at uncertain times.

But just 3 months later, in June 2020, Kaiser Permanente retooled its programs in hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes to offer some in-person, remote and some safe in-person options that gave volunteers new opportunities to serve health care workers, patients, and their families during a critical time.

In all, in 2021, 834 volunteers provided 33,938 hours of service. Many of them were new to work and offered their time because they had lost their jobs or found themselves on more flexible schedules.

“We realized our volunteers were coming back because it was hard to be away,” said Randy Orth, director of the volunteer services program at Kaiser Permanente Clinics in Oregon and Southwest Washington. “People are isolated.”

They felt compelled to serve the heroic frontline workers who were risking their lives for the sake of their communities.

“They felt we needed to be there for our nurses. We needed to be there for our doctors.

Main role and personal contact

In pre-COVID-19 times, volunteers served a variety of roles in clinics and hospitals, welcoming patients and their families, answering non-medical questions, and giving directions. They pushed wheelchairs, restocked supplies, filled suitcases for patients, and acted as problem solvers.

Hospice volunteers conducted home visits with the terminally ill and their families. They provided temporary care and support to the patient’s family and friends. Sometimes, they would simply sit with a patient, offering companionship in difficult times.

“The personal contact you have with patients and their families during your visits is the core of aged care volunteering,” said Olivia Lamb, a retired Kaiser Permanente in Portland who has volunteered since 2016.

“I have been honored to hear patients share their life stories, fondest memories of loved ones, their experiences, and their sorrows; Or, at times, being there as a calm, reassuring existence.”

Providing critical support during a pandemic

But the pandemic changed everything. Many volunteer services at the site have been changed to reflect health and safety protocols – or have been discontinued entirely. At Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside and Westside Medical Centers, volunteers have given thousands of hours to keep facilities safe by scanning high-touch areas. For aged care volunteers, home visits and other personal services are temporarily suspended until COVID-19 restrictions are eased.

“As a volunteer, not being able to establish that personal contact with patients and their families during the pandemic has been a huge loss,” Lamb said.

But, like many Kaiser Permanente volunteers, Lamb adapted. She has visited patients by phone and now provides office support for aged care and bereavement programs.

Pivoting to make a difference

New ways of thinking have become the hallmark of the program in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.

Volunteers focused on supporting caregiving staff by distributing meals to raise morale among the fatigued frontline workers. They offer peer support over the phone to cancer patients who want to talk to someone who can understand their experience. And volunteers checked on each other to provide mental health and general support during this challenging time, demonstrating the true community within the program.

Perhaps the biggest victory was the mass vaccination clinic at the Oregon Convention Center, where more than 350 volunteers from Kaiser Permanente have helped guide people through the process of getting COVID-19 vaccines.

“It’s really inspiring work,” Orth said. There has been a lot of uncertainty and tension over the past two years. But it was great to see all of our staff and volunteers working together during the pandemic.”

If you are interested in giving back, making connections, and caring for others, learn how to become a volunteer at Kaiser Permanente.

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