‘Therapeutic as a drug’: Auckland volunteer finds joy in hospital companionship

A hospital volunteer discovers a good yarn can be as therapeutic as medicine — for patients and himself alike.

Words: Rouan Lucas van Ryn

“If you’re looking for miracles,” says journalist and photographer Chris van Ryn, “I recommend level 7 at Auckland Hospital.” Soon after 3:30pm on Tuesday afternoons, Chris cycles to the hospital for his three-hour shift as a volunteer patient companion. The doors to the orthopaedic ward open as he swipes his security card. In room 11, he cautiously pulls aside the curtain of a cubicle.

“Hi, I’m Chris, a volunteer patient companion. I’m just checking in to see how you’re doing and if there’s anything I can help you with.”

“There’s a moment,” Chris says, “when you reach out your hand and draw back the curtain, and you have no idea who’s behind there or what condition they’re in. Perhaps they’re pre-op and feeling anxious, or they’ve just returned from the operating theatre and are coming out of the anaesthetic.

“They might be scared and in a lot of pain. Their neck might be in a brace, or there might be pins in their legs or bolts and plates stabilizing their knee. You never know for sure how they’re going to respond to your visit.”

For Chris, this role is about being open to patients’ needs, whatever they are. “It’s about creating a safe and confidential space. You must be someone they can trust.”

Sometimes, it’s as simple as bringing patients a coffee or tea, finding them a paperback or magazine, or helping them with meals. Most often, though, Chris just chats. And the chats sometimes go on for half an hour.

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“I’m amazed at the kinds of conversations I get into,” he says. “When people are vulnerable, they often share honest, unguarded thoughts. The authentic parts of them emerge. It encourages me to do the same, creating a bond. When that happens, it’s a beautiful moment.”

Chris recalls conversations with a woman who dealt with the loss of her husband, son, and sister — all in the same year — by using breathing techniques and sitting in silence. He’s spoken to a classical pianist about performing with one arm. He’s had discussions with classic-car collectors, cat lovers, cockatiel fanatics, property investors, and a woman who spends her time in hospital doing embroidery.

“Sometimes, all people need is to be heard and understood. Just saying, ‘Yeah, I get it,’ can be as therapeutic as a drug.”

Many of the patients in the orthopaedics ward have broken bones from simple accidents, often at home. “When I talk to people who have slipped in the bath or tripped on a step and now lie in a hospital bed for six weeks, I realize that, in seconds, life can change forever.”

Being a patient companion has made Chris grateful for his life, and it’s increased his capacity for empathy. He is animated when he talks about the miracles of medicine: spines braced with titanium; a transplanted sliver of bone to brace a vertebra; veins, hamstrings and tendons transplanted from one leg into the other; ulcers drained; cysts removed; bones recalibrated and reconnected. “I’ve become aware of the incredible contribution that science and medicine have made to people’s lives.”

But that’s not the only kind of miracle to be found. There are also miracles of personality: optimism in the face of adversity, kindness and compassion in frustration, and anger and acceptance in pain, discomfort and loss.

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Sages and, more recently, neuroscientists have asserted that giving is a crucial component of well-being, leading to increased happiness. It’s a vital part of living a rich and layered life. And long-term studies show that people who volunteer become happier.

There’s another advantage — while in the ward, the focus is on the patients. “This is a time when I forget myself for a while and focus on others,” says Chris. “It’s quite liberating not being inside my own head so much.

“I get as much as I give. It’s very much a reciprocal relationship. I feel happy when I’ve done a stint at the hospital and have had some great conversations. David Whyte said it in his poem on joy: ‘Joy is the act of giving ourselves away before we need to or are asked to; joy is practised generosity.’

“I found joy on level 7, orthopaedics.”


Fancy being a volunteer patient companion? Applicants require a police check, references and up-to-date inoculations (the hospital can assist in updating them).

Find out more at adhb.health.nz by searching under “volunteer”.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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