U.Va.'s Madison House Medical Services Program Always Draws a Crowd

September 07, 2006

Sept. 7, 2006 -- In this era of online class registration and concerts that sell 50,000 tickets in 15 minutes via the Web, standing in line has become almost anachronistic for today’s college students. But on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 3, nearly 300 University of Virginia students lined up along Rugby Road, and they weren’t hoping for tickets to a post-season game or a movie premiere.  Instead, they hoped to land a spot in the most popular volunteer program administered by Madison House, the student volunteer center at U.Va.

Students had begun lining up outside the door of Madison House at 3 a.m. to claim one of the 375 spots in the Medical Services program, which are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. By 9:30 when the first staffers of Madison House arrived, about 150 students were waiting in line, and by noon, when the doors opened, around 300 were standing by, according to Kenny Ott, a fourth-year biochemistry major and head program director of the Medical Services program.

There are “always ridiculous lines, because the word gets out that if you don’t get there early, you’re not going to get a unit and a time that fits into your schedule,” explained Omar Syed, co-director of the volunteers who serve in the U.Va. Medical Center’s acute pediatric intensive care unit, the most popular placement among the 22 units where Medical Services volunteers work.

Among the units where the volunteers are placed are the U.Va. Cancer Center, the radiology department at the U.Va. Medical Center and the Martha Jefferson Hospital operating rooms. Each unit accepts between 10 and 30 volunteers, who each work a three-hour shift once a week for the full academic year. For many of the 22 units, a string of students is on duty from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.

In past years, the number of volunteers typically has been close to the total number of spots available, so no more than about 20 volunteers have had to be turned away from the Medical Services program, Ott said.  This year, as in past years, about 125 of the 375 spots were filled by returning volunteers (who signed up on Saturday) leaving 250 spots for new volunteers. But this year, about 75 new volunteers found no room left in the program, Ott said. Madison House staff tried to interest those students in other available programs, such as the Boosters, who serve as teacher’s aids in local elementary school classrooms; Athletics, where students coach local youth baseball, basketball  and soccer teams; or Rehab Services, where volunteers work at several local agencies providing specialized rehabilitation and companionship services.  About 50 of them signed up for these programs.

Pre-med students and others interested in working in health care, make up the vast majority of Medical Services volunteers, explained Ott and Syed. “Madison House does a great job providing opportunities for those pre-med students to work with doctors and nurses in the hospital,” Syed said. “The program gives you a pretty in-depth view into what you may be doing [in a health care career.] It’s a wonderful way to get acclimated to the environment and figure out if this is for you, or if you should go somewhere else.”

And why is the acute pediatric ICU the most popular of all the units? “Anything relating to children will be popular,” Syed said, “because who doesn’t want to spend time around children and make their day brighter? Generally these kids are bed stricken.  You talk and help them pass this very uncomfortable time, and you get to see the results immediately in their smiles.”

This year’s sign-up time was chosen to avert potential safety hazards. In previous years the time was 8 a.m. and students would camp out during the preceding night, Ott explained. The time was changed to noon, but students still showed up in the middle of the night, Ott said, noting that Madison House has considered using an online registration system but has yet to find a volunteer who can create the necessary software for them.

There are no plans, however, to expand the program as it already provides students to nearly every unit at the hospital, Ott said. The program expanded to accommodate 425 students a few years ago, but Madison House found that some of those students were in placements that didn’t have enough work to keep them busy. So, three years ago, the program was reduced to its current size — 375 students — to provide rewarding positions for all the participants, Ott explained.

“We’re very fortunate that we have as many volunteers as we do, who search out and find us,” Syed said. “It’s a testament to our program that it has been so appealing to the volunteers.”