Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

The End of the Age of Volunteerism

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of the Age of Volunteerism. While there exist tiny spaces where true volunteers live and thrive in a bilateral exchange of freely given goodwill, by and large volunteerism has been extinguished by the actions of its historical recipients. Sunday marks my last day ever of hospital ER call, the end of 2 years of receiving token payment for making my expertise available following 25 years of doing so for free. My experience is typical, as is this denouement.

Once upon a time all of your doctors were in private practice. We all had tiny little cottage businesses, did our work, and billed you or your insurance company for the work we did. Some of us worked in tiny little groups, but it was the rare doctor who was part of a large group or business whether in a big city or out in the country. Even the slickest Madison Avenue internist was basically a country doc, just with a better, more expensive wardrobe. In addition to having a greater familiarity with our patients we also enjoyed a very clubby relationship with all of the other doctors where we practiced. There was a collegiality, a sense that we were all in the struggle together. Folks who shirked their duties, foisting them off on other docs, were quickly educated about proper protocol or left to toil alone.

Hospitals were different, too. Local or regional, they were hardly the gargantuan mega-businesses they’ve become. The org chart was shallow, and most local doctors were on a first name basis with the few administrators on the hospital payroll. You took call for the ER as a volunteer; the ER respected that you were donating your skill and your time and handled everything it could before calling you. Same thing for consultations. Your colleague only called you if they couldn’t figure out a problem or ran out beyond their scope of practice. There was a faint air of apology with each request, and a definite unspoken appreciation for the help that would be given. You helped because you were appreciated.

This is really no different from all manner of volunteerism in America. Smallish, closely knit organizations depending on the goodwill and generosity of members of their community pitching in to ensure success. Think local memorial 5K races, or CrossFit Games Regionals in the days before ESPN or the Home Depot Center. Countless small private schools that depended on the largesse and time offered by the families who sent their children there. You gladly accepted the opportunity to volunteer because you knew that without you the organization would not be able to function. You also knew that the recipient of your generosity not only appreciated your contribution, they really had no other options. Not only that, but if that organization somehow existed in your professional space you knew that it would never, not ever, abuse the trust necessary for volunteers to continue.

What happened? Money. Money and size and the distance that they create between an organization and its volunteers. Let’s go back to the hospital and the ER for a minute. Where once your efforts as a volunteer were deeply appreciated and those efforts rewarded with respect and care for your time and your expertise, the growth of employment of doctors by hospitals opened a gap between colleagues. No longer was there the esprit de corps, the shared notion that the primary target of our efforts was the patient was replaced by so very many doctors by the reality that they worked first for a business as faceless and uncaring as GM. Work that was once done by your colleague was now pushed to the volunteers whenever possible. It’s cheaper that way. Worse, boxes to be checked by the employed (to maximize revenue and minimize risk) meant demands made of volunteers, not requests. Worse, still, were discoveries that some “volunteers” were more equal than others: they were paid.

Innumerable examples are there for the picking. Some times it was just a case of laziness.¬†Other times the insult was a clear effort to dump work on the volunteer. A critical care fellow requested a consult for acute narrow angle glaucoma. For those of you not medical this is one of the few “drop everything and go” consultations in eye care. When I arrived in the ICU I found a young patient with a black cornea who was mildly uncomfortable. I did what every highly experienced specialist does when they start a consultation, I asked the patient: “Hey, what’s up with your eye?” Turns out they had a blind, painful eye as the result of a surgical mishap, and surgery to remove the eye was already scheduled. Their discomfort was because none of the eye medications had been ordered; the fellow never asked. No doctor (or nurse) would have allowed this to happen in the Age of Volunteerism.

While this is nothing short of tragic in health care, it was inevitable once medical businesses were incentivized to grow ever larger. It is not confined to health care by any means. How do you think that volunteer at a Spartan Race feels when he learns how much his “team leader” is being paid? Have you ever “discovered” how much the Executive VP of your favorite professional organization is paid? As a people we Americans are generous to a fault. That generosity usually continues right up until we discover that we have been duped, and even worse that we have been purposely duped by the people who run the organizations for which we volunteer.

And so we gather here to mourn the passing of the Age of Volunteerism. Like so many things of wonder and goodness there remain pockets of resistance, little oases where the goodwill, honesty, and appreciation beget the kind of ebb and flow that made things so much better, kinder, more collegial at the apex of Volunteerism. My friend Tom Gardner was just named the president of the Society of Alumni of our Alma Mater. Tom has given tirelessly of his “spaces”, his timespace, brainspace and emotionalspace to help shepherd tiny Williams College as it flows on though time. Is this truly different? A tiny refuge from the Zombie Apocalypse of corporatization of all things to which we once volunteered?

We can only hope. Hope that Tom and those like him who continue to find places and causes where their volunteerism is met with what we in medicine have had to bid farewell. We can only hope that there will be places where being a volunteer means receiving the respect and appreciation and even a kind of love in return for what we have given. We can only hope that there will continue to be places where the incessant drive to grow ever bigger, size measured on a spreadsheet rather than by heart, will be resisted. For if it can happen in medicine, if volunteerism can be killed in what is arguably the most noble of all endeavors, I fear that it is doomed everywhere.

We mourn the end of the Age of Volunteerism. We wait with equal parts sadness and fear for arrival of whatever comes next.

 

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