THEY leave the scalpels and miracle drugs to the professionals. Their weapons against illness are smiles, warm conversation and cups of tea.
And while they may not have the medical knowledge of the Capital’s world-leading doctors and surgeons, volunteers can be no less vital in the recuperation of the region’s sick and injured.
Hundreds give their time in Lothian hospitals every day, pushing trolleys, working in shops and helping patients with their meals. They expect nothing in return and often receive little recognition.
But as part of Volunteers’ Week, which draws to a close today, efforts have been made to shine a light on the vital role they play across society, and particularly in the NHS.
First Minister Alex Salmond this week visited the Western General Hospital to meet with those who give their time through the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), which recently changed its name from the WRVS in an effort to attract more men.
Among them were three city women who between them had been committed volunteers for more than a century – Agnes McFarlane, aged 88, Margaret Collinson, 83, and the youngster of the trio, sprightly 79-year-old Eleanor Taylor.
Margaret said that she had started volunteering at her youth club as a 14-year-old, which was to prove the start of a lifelong passion.
She said: “I feel I’ve led a charmed life and I see it as a way of giving something back for all the things I’ve been given.”
It is a sentiment shared by Eleanor and Agnes, although they also admit that they have personally benefited from giving up their time as it allows them to socialise and stay active.
And while it is not something they recognise, there is also evidence to suggest helping out can have a positive impact on the health of volunteers, as well as the people and institutions they support.
Older people who volunteer are less depressed, have a better quality of life and are happier, according to a recent study published by the RVS.
Eleanor, from Barnton, who takes a trolley around wards at the Western and has been with the RVS for 30 years, said: “For some people we’re the only link between the real world and hospital, and it’s the only way they can buy something they want. A lot of them just want someone to talk to.
“I had free time and it’s also a way of making friends while still doing a valuable job. If you help someone, you do get a kick out of it.”
Agnes, who lives in Boswall and works in the RVS shop in the Western’s cancer department, does not just sell newspapers and snacks.
She said her role meant she often lent a friendly ear to hospital patients who had been given a devastating diagnosis.
Agnes, who at one point volunteered five days a week but as she approaches 90 has cut down to Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday mornings, said: “A lot of people have bad news and they come down and just want a cup of tea and someone to chat to. It’s unbelievable how people talk to you.
“People come to the department from so far away that they often don’t have anyone with them.”
The volunteers have also witnessed decades of changes in the NHS, with Agnes’s outlet transforming from a old-fashioned sweet shop over the course of five refits.
At the Western alone, there are more than 100 RVS volunteers, with a further 600 throughout Lothian and 7000 in Scotland.
In total, NHS Lothian has said around 1000 people, aged between 16 and 90 and from 26 different countries, help the health board out for free.
Their numbers were temporarily boosted by one on Wednesday, when Mr Salmond got behind the counter at the Western’s RVS cafe and served tea.
The First Minister, who also visited helpers at Edinburgh Zoo and the Castle this week, said people like Agnes, Margaret and Eleanor offered companionship and cheer to those who needed it most.
But it is not just the mood of the patients that gets an uplift thanks to their generosity, he said volunteers also played an important role in the physical recovery of some of the most vulnerable.
Mr Salmond said: “They are absolutely essential to the functioning of the public services. If I was in the Western, these are the sort of folk I’d like to meet.
“Any physician will tell you that the human side of a relationship with a patient is often as important as the medical side.”
With hospital opening times set to expand to deal with rocketing patient numbers, as well as the integration of health and social care which will see more patients treated in the community with a potential for increased isolation, the importance of volunteers is only set to increase.
And while NHS Lothian has been keen to emphasise that volunteers will not replace the role of paid staff, they could become an even more common sight on hospital wards. Last year, a pilot was introduced that saw volunteers help patients with meal times, in response to fears over nutrition that were highlighted in a damning report into the care of the elderly.
David McCullough, RVS chief executive, was also present for the First Minister’s visit to the hospital cafe.
He said: “Volunteers’ Week is a wonderful opportunity to highlight the fantastic work of our army of 7000 volunteers across Scotland who, without making a fuss or asking for reward, give their time selflessly to others. We know that our volunteers make a huge difference to the lives of older people and they themselves also get great satisfaction from the work they do, so it’s win-win.”
Playing the name game to attract men
WHILE there are thousands of volunteers in the Lothians, more are needed.
The Royal Voluntary Service recently changed its name from the WRVS following fears that men were being put off signing up.
The charity was originally founded as the Women’s Voluntary Services for Air Raid Precautions.
During the Second World War, its volunteers helped civilians in the aftermath of air raids by offering emergency aid. It also became known for assisting with the evacuation and billeting of children. By 1943, it had attracted more than one million volunteers and was involved in a wide range of activities to support the war effort.
Its work continued in social care after 1945, and it became the Royal Women’s Voluntary Service in 1966 following
approval from the Queen.
It continued in that guise
until last month – 75 years after it was founded.
Chief executive David McCullough admitted that the decision to change the name had been a difficult one.
He said: “A lot of men didn’t realise that we welcome male volunteers and the fact that we support older men, not just older women, as well.
“A lot of women said there was a time when the W was a very empowering thing, but actually it started to exclude people. It’s about recognising we have men in the organisation, too, and emphasising the voluntary.
“It was hard, but we did a lot of consultation and I think it [the name change] was a good way to celebrate our 75th anniversary.”