At the margins

There is a great tradition of healthcare professionals working as volunteers, both at home and abroad, and this is highlighted and celebrated by the BMA Doctors as Volunteers competition. I entered a poster this year, and was very pleased to be chosen as one of the two winners. Euston foodbank, where I volunteer, will be putting the £850 prize money to good use, ensuring our foodbank is welcoming, and purchasing essential equipment and stock.

You can read more about other doctors’ volunteering experiences, and see all the shortlisted posters which were displayed at the BMA AGM at the BMA Doctors as Volunteers site. Below is the text from my poster. 

“Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale.… The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and social problems fall to a large extent within their jurisdiction.”

Although Virchow lived during the 1800s his words ring true today. Working as a London hospital doctor, I see the human consequences of inequality every day. I treat the symptoms of a patient’s airway disease, but poverty, malnutrition, poor housing, anxiety, depression and social isolation as contributory factors for which I have no prescription.

Doctors occasionally save lives. But more often I diagnose and treat disease, provide information and support, and ease suffering. I go to work each day hoping to work with people to reduce their distress, and to improve the quality of their lives. But when someone’s primary concerns are whether they will lose their housing, whether their benefits will be delayed again, and whether they will be able to eat this week, how can we possibly focus on drug compliance, smoking cessation, or the benefits of regular exercise?

Feeling powerless
I have lived a privileged life. I have always felt safe and loved, and have never gone hungry. I have been taught by some of the most respected thinkers in their fields, and trained at some of the most highly rated hospitals in the world. This has failed to prepare me to be an advocate for my patients or an ‘attorney of the poor’. I give a few coins to the numerous people sleeping on the streets on my way into work, and offer compassion to the patients I see, so unfairly disadvantaged due to social circumstances. But it is not enough. My voice is unheard at the ballot box, and I feel impotent in a world which seems cold and indifferent. Last year, feeling powerless, I contacted my local foodbank.

The Trussell Trust and Euston foodbank
At the training session I attended, I learned that 13 million people live below the poverty line in the UK, with individuals going hungry for a range of reasons, from benefit delays to receiving an unexpected bill on a low income. Many people who are issued a foodbank voucher by their GP, social worker or community organisation are in work. The Trussell Trust’s 400-strong network of foodbanks provides emergency food and support. In 2015/16, the trust gave more than 1,100,000 three day emergency food parcels to people in crisis. Camden foodbank was established by City Church in Pratt Mews in December 2011. A second centre, Euston foodbank, opened in Lancing Street in August 2016. Weekly distribution now takes place from the two centres, with a tenfold increase in clients since 2012/13 to 3188 clients supported in 2015/16. During 2015/16 nearly 30 tons of food were collected and redistributed.

 

The foodbank is warm, welcoming and free of judgment, and clients are treated with respect and compassion. Volunteers have a number of roles; from collecting, weighing and sorting donations; to greeting clients and giving out food parcels. I look forward to every session at the foodbank, and always leave energised and enriched. Sometimes I informally chat with clients over a cup of tea, discussing their situation and signposting them to further support. Sometimes I make up the food parcels for three days of emergency supplies. Sometimes I weigh, sort and organise donations. I also help with the website and social media presence. I enjoy sorting tins of beans by use-by-date as much as handing a food parcel to someone in need!

The people who I see at the foodbank are often described as being ‘at the margins of society’. They are not at the margins; they are right in front of us, on our doorsteps, in our own communities. Many healthcare workers volunteer abroad, but you do not need to go far to find a fulfilling role.

Feeling empowered
The few hours I give to the foodbank have a small but meaningful impact on the people who attend. But they have a huge impact on me. I am acquiring knowledge about homelessness, the benefits system, and local third sector organisations which enhance my professional ability. I am gaining an insight into the lives of people who I treat in hospital, and learning what helps and what does not. I am enhancing skills in team working, organisation, and communication. I am also learning about leadership, fundraising and networking from those who established our local food banks and have kept them running since 2011.

On a personal level I feel useful, and a sense of wellbeing. I value the opportunity to use my skills in a way that is practical and simple,and which contrasts to the complex decision-making of hospital shifts. I love the lack of hierarchy and the compassion the team shows for each other as well as our clients. At a time of austerity, when things often seem bleak, the foodbank is a beacon of hope and human contact for clients and volunteers alike.

To find out more about the work of the Trussell Trust, and opportunities to volunteer see: www.trusselltrust.org.uk.

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