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Generous gifts of free time

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Terry Owen, who runs a highly regarded hospital volunteer scheme, puts its success down to its committed team

When Terry Owen was appointed manager of the Volunteers Scheme at Aintree Hospital in Liverpool, it had just 20 volunteers. Before her retirement last year, it had 700, had gained national and international recognition, and earned her an MBE.

But Ms Owen says there is “absolutely no way” this is all down to her.

“The real success has come from the calibre of the team we have. I had no idea it would ever get this big and when I received the MBE I couldn’t help but feel it was wrong because it was the volunteers who had done so much work,” she says.

“I was honestly far more excited when we received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2005 because that was for the whole team.”

Ms Owen is definite about clarifying the boundaries of volunteers. “From day one, I outlined that volunteers couldn’t do a single intimate thing for patients, and never had any clinical responsibility. They’re there to provide TLC, engaging with patients and giving support to relatives.”

This can be as simple as straightening pillows, picking up magazines that have fallen on the floor or helping with meals.

“You hear terrible stories in the news about patients being left on trolleys and not being discovered until hours later. Here, you have more chance of drowning in tea,” she muses.

Before the scheme was set up, Ms Owen was a ward sister in accident and emergency. She’d always wanted to be a nurse but it wasn’t the norm for a mother in the 1970s to work, so didn’t start training until her late 30s. She fell in love with it - A&E felt “like going home”.

So, when her thirst for a new challenge led her to become volunteer manager in 1997, she assumed she’d return to A&E after a year, rather than stay in the role for the rest of her career.

She began by researching schemes at as many hospitals as possible. “I noticed limitations everywhere I went. Many had been set up by charities so I felt I had an advantage by coming from the inside. I could talk the talk.”

Her clinical experience proved essential. “I knew that nurses effectively needed gofers on a busy ward, people to sit and have a cup of tea with patients who usually wander off,” she says.

There have been times when volunteers have bought clothes from charity shops for patients who had theirs cut off in A&E. One volunteer came in on her day off, taking two buses, to put a bet on for a patient because it was something he’d always done.

“Families send in letters to praise volunteers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty, especially in relation to end-of-life-care,” says Ms Owen.

The scheme was set up when unemployment was high, so Ms Owen also promotes it as a way into work. “People would get a reference after 100 hours of volunteering and we’d give help with interviews and applications,” she says.

Its work experience scheme is also something she is proud of. For two weeks 15-year-olds can volunteer in the hospital to help them make an informed choice as to whether going into the NHS is right for them.

“It’s quite sensational for people to go onto a ward for the first time. They’re the bottom of the heap so they really get to see what it’s like.

“Sometimes they might feel excluded and I tell them not to expect people to throw their arms wide open but, ultimately, this allows them to develop a confidence of their own,” she says. Up to 70% of these students return as volunteers when they’re 16.

Ms Owen is well aware of the pull of the scheme. Although retired, she remains involved, saying: “Once you’re a volunteer, you’re always a volunteer.”

Katherine Bannon

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