The Palliative Care McGill Volunteer Training Program has been taking place yearly since the Palliative Care Unit was established at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1975. During COVID there were no volunteers or Volunteer Training programs in the McGill-affiliated institutions. After a three-year hiatus, the Palliative Care (PC) Volunteer Training Program resumed in November 2022.
This Volunteer Training Program is mandatory for all volunteers who want to become part of the multidisciplinary team on PC services and units in the McGill-affiliated hospitals. People wishing to volunteer with Hope and Cope at the Jewish General Hospital, Cedars CanSupport at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) and Mount Sinai came together for one evening a week for seven weeks. The Training Program is comprised of a series of topics especially designed by multidisciplinary PC experts. The content is based on the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care (CHPC) volunteer training competencies and the course is developed and implemented by a team of hospital-based managers and coordinators from Supportive and PC Programs and Services and the McGill Council on Palliative Care.
The volunteer role is clearly explained in the Training Program, including the responsibilities and the ethical and legal implications of volunteering as well as the boundaries in which the volunteers function. As Rifka Hanfling, the PC Program Coordinator at the Jewish General Hospital states, “The volunteer is an integral member of the Palliative Care interdisciplinary team. The volunteer provides emotional and psychosocial support to patients and families and assistance when appropriate”. At the same time, she reminds them of the importance of confidentiality and the importance of reporting patients’ and families’ concerns or needs for additional support to other members of the team. Like the staff, volunteers are reminded of the importance of self-care and support. They are encouraged to debrief difficult and stressful situations with their volunteer coordinators.
This year’s session included topics such as Integrative Palliative Care, and, Philosophy and Quality of Life given by Dr. Justin Sanders as well as The Multidisciplinary Team presented by Dr. Golda Tradounsky. Dr Tradounsky explained how the volunteers are contributing members to the multidisciplinary team and how their “presence” makes a difference for patients, families and other team members. Core subjects include Family Dynamics, Spirituality, Ethics and Confidentiality, Communications, Cultural Awareness, and Grief and Bereavement.
The isolation created by the COVID experience made the lecture provided by Dr. Roger Ghoche even more powerful as he emphasized the importance of empathetic communication and reflective listening. Participants were inspired by how COVID created opportunities for new ways to communicate among patients, families and staff. A lecture on Virtual Healthcare by Dr. Jean Zigby enabled the audience to realize how technology created opportunities for communication. Many of us remember seeing images of staff, patients or family members communicating with iPads when visitors were not permitted in hospitals.
Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) was deemed an essential topic to be included this year because volunteers can be asked for information about many issues and should feel equipped to handle difficult questions about MAiD. Veronique Fraser, an advanced practice nurse from the MUHC, explained MAiD as a process that must follow strict, ethical, legal and clinical criteria and is seen as an option for care at the end of life for certain patients. A question-and-answer period at the end of the presentation resulted in a very thoughtful discussion.
Participating in the Volunteer Training program is just the first step in becoming a volunteer. On some PC units, volunteers take an additional 12 weeks of practical training under the auspices of the volunteer coordinator and are paired with an experienced volunteer. They are taught about infection control protocols, hand washing and donning and doffing gloves and gowns, how to enter a room and how to assist in meal tray setup and cleanup, among other tasks. Volunteers are then offered their own regular shift and must be available on a regular basis, participate in team meetings, and assist in the training of new volunteers.
At the end of the Training Program, volunteers understood the importance of making training compulsory. Many emphasized that it helped them be better volunteers. One volunteer commented, “thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
In the future, the Volunteer Training Program will be offered in person, twice a year. All volunteers are also invited to the Council on Palliative Care workshops and can be kept informed about these by adding their names to the Council on Palliative Care mailing list. Many workshops are in English but more French workshops will be offered.
The Volunteer Training Program Committee will be reaching out to regions across Quebec that have English- speaking minority populations to increase access to training opportunities for volunteers. We look forward to including volunteers in long term care facilities and homecare programs.
The Committee will plan ongoing workshops and lectures for experienced volunteers. The volunteers, who the patients, families and staff so rely on, will be provided continuing education opportunities similar to other members of the multidisciplinary team. Volunteers will be encouraged to learn in their volunteer role.
For information about the PC Volunteer Training Program and/or if you wish to become a volunteer in a McGill-affiliated centre, please contact the Volunteer Department at that Centre, or, contact Devon Phillips: devon.phillips [at] mcgill.ca