Like most people, I have visited hospitals as a patient from time to time. Very rarely in an inpatient capacity, fortunately. Nothing has yet been diagnosed in me that requires too much intervention. And I have visited friends and relatives in hospitals. That’s a fairly normal experience.
Recently though I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at one of Abu Dhabi's many reputed hospitals, not as a patient or a visitor, but as a volunteer. Or as a friend happily put it, as a "lab rat".
The opportunity, I was told by the physician who called me out of the blue to ask me to volunteer, would involve me lying flat on my back while medical residents – young doctors, starting their careers – ran an ultrasound device over my chest and stomach to see what they could find.
The process was part of a four-day Canadian-devised course, designed to give experience to the doctors, the hospital’s emergency medicine residents, in the techniques of using ultrasound devices and interpreting the results.
I was approached as, a few days earlier, I had completed a full ultrasound scan, as part of a routine check-up, and had produced a "positive" result, meaning something slightly out of the ordinary. Not new to me or to my doctors but something that the emergency medicine resident doctors had to learn to recognise. Would I like to volunteer to be a medical guinea pig? Yes, of course, I would.
Over the years, the hospital has provided me with good service, so it is right that I should give something back. Half the resident doctors taking the course were Emiratis. This was the clincher. In the past, I have tried to mentor young Emirati men and women in a variety of fields. Now, to be able to contribute to their training in medicine was an unexpected but welcome opportunity.
My participation in the course did not take very long. Both the physician running it and I were delighted that all the resident doctors managed to identify the little "positive" feature.
By the time this article appears, they will have completed their course and each young doctor will be certified as an independent practitioner in point of care ultrasound certification. Which means that in the future, when they deal with patients brought into emergency, they will be able to rapidly operate ultrasound machines to diagnose and treat life-threatening conditions.
There are benefits to providing this kind of training, the hospital notes, on people rather than on simulators. The course for which I volunteered is properly accredited and the first such to be run at the hospital. It could well become a programme available to doctors from across the country. But for the time being, they are not seeking more volunteers, although that may come in due course. Other hospitals, too, may identify opportunities where they can reach out to the public for help.
Assuming that hospitals will from time to time commission volunteers, I wonder if there may be opportunities for other institutions to encourage similar public participation.
I can see scope for civil defence and emergency services, as well as the police, perhaps in training police emergency response teams or search-and-rescue or the civil defence firefighting teams. They all have to deal with situations where they engage with members of the public.
In each case, careful planning and risk assessment is required, much more so than in my case; I just had to lie down for a few minutes. I would hope, however, that, with imagination and a bit of innovative thinking, more volunteering opportunities might be identified.
We hear frequently that the government wishes to encourage a spirit of "volunteerism" in a range of fields – people pitching in as marshals at big events or beach clean-ups. That is all helpful and it can be fun, too. But let’s encourage "volunteerism" in other areas as well. Nothing dangerous, nothing too stressful, but something that is of long-term benefit to society. Helping, even flat on my back, to train our Emirati doctors, and those of other nationalities, seemed to fit the bill.
In the meantime, I am prepared to be of assistance to other doctors. Maybe I can show my elbow or my knee. It has all been examined before. But if it is to aid research, another trip to the hospital is fine by me.
Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National