The Student Volunteers Helping the NHS Up and Down the Country

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Since lockdown was imposed on the whole of the UK on 23rd March 2020, the lives of many students have certainly been disrupted as they either moved back home or buckled down in Leeds and teaching moved online. Since then most of you will likely have spent some time baking sourdough or banana bread, going for your one hour of state-mandate exercise or sadly slaving away at your dissertation.

However one group of students haven’t been resting as much as the rest of us. I’m talking about the student volunteers at St John Ambulance Service (SJAS). Having run as a society at both Leeds Beckett University and University of Leeds, the student volunteers usually help out with the national charity in providing medical cover at large scale events like fairs, festivals such as Manchester Pride, and services such as the Booze Bus in Leeds City Centre. 

Volunteers India and Ethan helping out at Manchester Pride in 2019

The Booze Bus – contrary to what it sounds like – operates around Leeds city centre providing medical assistance for drunk people who might need medical attention for example. Since all of these events have been postponed or cancelled as social distancing policies were introduced, the NHS then called on the St John Ambulance service to help out and these students certainly stepped up to the plate.

Charlie at SJAS’ headquarters next to one of their ambulances

Sitting down virtually with Charlie Cassidy, a committee member of the SJAS and member for four years, I asked her about her experience helping out the NHS as it struggled to deal with the influx of coronavirus cases with severe symptoms into hospitals.

She told me how ‘the past few weeks have been very uncertain and somewhat unsettling for all of us’ though members of the society ‘have been busy completing specialist Covid-19 courses to equip us with the skills needed to care for patients during the pandemic”.

Volunteers Ethan and Niamh working at our HQ in Wakefield

While many of us have cooped up for the time being, SJAS has been busy sending volunteers into hospitals and by providing ambulances to support the NHS ambulance services. 

Cassidy added that it ‘has been quite scary knowing that we were going to be joining the NHS on the frontline’ but remained positive saying that it has kept them all busy during lockdown and many people have been friendly (at a 6-metre distance of course) while out volunteering.

The tasks they have had to help out with over the past few weeks have certainly varied. Charlie has been working at the organisation’s headquarters in Wakefield to ensure ambulances are full stocked and ambulance crews are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) keeping the operation running smoothly. 

Laura working at HQ sorting out PPE (personal protective equipment) and keeping the stores stocked in recent weeks

Many volunteers when I interviewed Cassidy were still waiting to hear what hospitals they were needed in with some waiting to hear whether they’ll be needed at any Nightingale hospitals – luckily these hospitals didn’t end up being as busy as expected. Nathan, a second-year Neuroscience student has been working with training teams to deliver specialist COVID-19 care courses to other volunteers.

Nat, a third year Food Science student, and India, due to start a postgraduate nursing degree in September, have been working in the ambulance service. Nat said that one of her favourite jobs so far was “taking an elderly gentleman with dementia back to his care home after being in hospital for several weeks with coronavirus”.

She went on to say:

“The patient was confused and refused to believe that Nat and Jack were taking him home. However, when the patient’s son greeted him on his arrival home, the patient burst into tears with happiness. This was a huge reminder to all of us as to why we do what we do.”

“This was a huge reminder to all of us as to why we do what we do.” – Nat, a third year student.

Some of the students are also getting stuck in helping out at hospitals. One student volunteer Sian has been deployed to an A&E in Brighton, her hometown, while another Fin has been deployed to the wards at Tameside Hospital in Manchester. Their roles have mainly involved taking patient observations (blood pressure, temperature etc), washing and feeding patients, keeping patients company due to current visitor bans and helping them to make phone calls to their families. 

Fin told The Gryphon how the staff have been “very welcoming and appreciative of our help on the wards. He went on to say “the current NHS-St John partnership seems to be working really well to take the pressure off staff and to provide for patients’ needs”.

When I asked Charlie about what she thought of both Leeds Beckett and University of Leeds’ responses to the crisis, she said that the support they’ve recieved as a society has been fantastic.

She goes on to say:

“We think it’s great how University of Leeds have provided resources such as accommodation, free car parking and equipment to the NHS”.

She also praised Leeds Beckett University who have been providing free training spaces for newly employed NHS workers. “These small tokens of kindness go a long way and make people’s lives slightly easier in these difficult times!” she told us.

Helping out on the NHS frontlines haven’t been the only thing the society has done recently. They’ve also hosted a fundraiser that has raised a whopping £1244, just under 250% more than their original target.

When I asked Charlie about why they were holding the fundraiser she told me how like many charities across the country, St John Ambulance Service has seen funding dry up in the wake of the pandemic. “When the pandemic hit”, she tells us, “all events at which we would usually provide medical cover were cancelled, and fundraising events were cancelled too”. 

These events were the main sources of income for St John Ambulance with the money going towards training volunteers, maintaining our vehicles, buying new equipment and medications. Charlie asked people to continue donating to the fundraiser, perhaps the price of their usual morning coffee, to help support St John Ambulance so they can continue to operate with the NHS. 

They’ve recieved significant support from some societies at Leeds including LUU’s Women’s Hockey Club who singlehandedly raised more than £150.

Donations to the fundraiser can be made here.

Ethan and Nick at Total Warrior, Bramham Park, 2019

So what can we take away from this unusual period in time, I ask Charlie. 

She says that “to her this pandemic has emphasised the fact that humanity can be incredible in the sense that they can pull together to make the best of a very bad situation”.

She pointed to Leeds Student Radio’s Virtual Fruity, LUU Help and Support team, and all the societies who are currently fundraising for charities and causes. She praised all the volunteers and final-year medic and nursing students being fast tracked saying they are a “credit to this university”. She pointed out how some students providing childcare too for key workers, community, and council schemes helping the vulnerable, shop workers and security guards keeping our shops safe and running. 

About her team in particular, she said 

“They have pulled together despite the scary circumstances to care for those who need it most, all whilst looking out for each other and completing their university work and dissertations. It’s confirmed to me that they are a dedicated, compassionate and selfless team who are a pleasure to work with

As for what people can do now, Charlie said the most important thing is that you try to stay safe – follow Government advice on lockdown and handwashing and look out for the vulnerable who may need your help.

A typical training session in Leeds University Union.

To join the Leeds Universities St John Ambulance Society, head to their social media pages for more information.

Their Facebook group can be found here.

Their Twitter page can be found here.

Their Instagram page can be found here.

The society usually has first aid training sessions every Thursday evening in Leeds University Union. For anyone interested, they still do Zoom training sessions.

In September, their first session back will likely be Thursday 24th September at 8pm but nothing is set in stone yet. Each week they teach different topics (e.g. CPR, choking etc) with the chance to get hands on and practice your skills. If it’s something that you realise you have a passion for then there’s always the opportunity to apply to become a volunteer first aider with St John Ambulance.

To donate to the fundraiser, click here.