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Lara Parienti is a second year BSc Applied Medical Sciences student and a Patient Anti-Boredom Volunteer at the UCH Cancer Centre, with UCH Cancer Fund. UCH Cancer Fund provides support for pa tients and carers in addition to NHS services, through fundraising and pastoral care.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you did, how long you did it for and how often you did it?

I’m a patient anti-boredom volunteer at the UCH Cancer Centre, with UCH Cancer Fund. I haven’t been doing it that long - I started at the beginning of this year, in January. In our role, we go around the floors at the cancer centre with a trolley and we serve hot drinks and snacks to patients and provide magazines and newspapers. We do this because they are really overbooked over there, and in a lot of hospitals, and patients sometimes have to wait a long time, so we do this to make the wait more comfortable. This isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault - it’s just they have many patients, and as it’s a cancer centre, it can take a while for patients to be seen, as you can’t just tell someone they have cancer in five minutes and move straight on to the next person. Sometimes, people can be waiting two hours and the tea shop closes at 5 pm, and people can be here longer than that and they don’t have anywhere to get coffee from so that’s why we go round. We’re also there for them if they need to talk.

What inspired you to take up this role?

I want to do medicine, so I guess that’s my professional motivation. I wanted to get experience with patient contact and get insight into how a hospital and cancer centre work. But mostly, I’ve always wanted to volunteer, and I wanted to be able to give some of my time that’s not about me; it’s about someone else, and I’ve always wanted to do that. I’m from France, and back home in high school, we barely had time to do anything like that and there were very few volunteering opportunities. I got here and figured it was really easy to do. The first year, I didn’t really get to do that much because I was trying to adapt to my new environment. But my second year was definitely the year I was going to start volunteering.

Do you feel like the volunteering you have done has given you more appreciation for the wellbeing part of healthcare?

Yes, it has only been three months, but I really have learnt a lot about how it works and patients’ experiences within the NHS. I’m from a different country system so it’s nice to be able to compare healthcare systems. As they wait for their turn, patients tell you they’ve been waiting two hours and then they talk about their wellbeing and so, you get to speak to the staff a lot too, checking how busy it is and things like that. I really get a lot of insight. I’ve really learnt a lot already.

Do you get a sense the patient has really appreciated what you do?

Yes, that’s a thing I’ve really noticed. It seems like an insignificant thing, just serving coffee and saying “Hi, how are you doing today?’ But then I realised people really are grateful and that’s one of the most rewarding parts of it. They really seem sincere, they smile, they say “thank you”, and they come to you. They ask how long the scheme has been going on, because it’s really changing things and they really appreciate it. We get instant feedback and I really wasn’t expecting that. I was more expecting they would just say thanks and leave with their coffee, but they are actually so grateful, and that’s really amazing, because it feels like it’s just such a small thing to do, but it is really making a big change.

Do you get the chance to speak to a lot of people?

Though a lot of people bring friends and family with them, a lot of people are also on their own. Those ones are actually really happy that there is someone there to listen to them; even if it’s just talking about the weather, it’s nice for them to have someone to talk to.

So your role is a lot more than just giving magazines and drinks? It’s much more of an empathetic approach.

Yes, that’s what I really like about the role. I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into at first, but it definitely is a lot of talking and understanding. I mean, you don’t have to, but you’re definitely meant to. Not all the patients want to talk, some will just say no to coffee. Some will be shy or not comfortable. It really depends on the patient.

What are some of the benefits you feel you’ve got out of volunteering?

Personally, one of the main things is empathy. Empathy is a really important thing in life and specially to me. That’s actually been a problem of mine; I may have too much of it! I’m very sensitive and emotional, and I felt I needed to get stronger. In this environment, you can’t just talk to the patient, and be sad for them; you really need to be strong and be there for them. I was scared that, doing medicine, this would hold me back, and make it harder for myself, but I’ve really learnt to use it as a an advantage that can help me do things better.

Have there been any challenges to the role?

The benefit is also a challenge. They are cancer patients, it is a cancer service and this can be really sad. There’s also a whole floor just for chemotherapy there, and some of them are going to feel really sick, so when you arrive there with coffee and biscuits, it’s not really helping at all. You can’t really tell at first, so you offer them coffee and some of them, understandably, will be quite annoyed at you. You can’t take this personally, as they're ill, but sometimes it’s hard, as you’re trying to help, but they’re telling you to go away.

Overall, would you recommend this opportunity to other people?

I would, definitely. It is so rewarding; just giving three to four hours of your time is not that much. You take a break from your own life and everything that's going on, and you just think about other people. Whether you want to work in healthcare later or not, it’s helping a lot of people. Whether you realise it or not, you really are helping a lot of people. The staff are really nice as well, it’s a really good environment. All the staff are grateful that we’re there as well, to offer tea and coffee to them, and they really appreciate that too. They work late and it’s busy, so they are really happy when we get there. It’s overall just a really nice environment.

If Lara’s experience with UCH Cancer Fund has inspired you to get involved, check out their other opportunities through our one-off opportunity programme!  Or if something else strikes your fancy, please visit our online directory to view all the current roles we have on offer with our 400+ London-based partners!