Medical Student: Hospice Volunteering Will Make Me a Better Doctor - But Also a Better Person

June 25, 2017  |  by WesleyLife

Ted Stewart-Hester wants to be the best physician he can be. On a larger scale, he wants to help advance the medical profession in its understanding of and attitudes toward death and dying.

As a first step toward that goal, Ted, a first-year student at Des Moines University, began volunteering with WesleyLife earlier this year. He spends as much time as his schedule allows with hospice patients at Wesley Acres, the organization's flagship community in Des Moines. And according to Sarah Underwood, WesleyLife’s volunteer coordinator, he’s already making an impact.

“Ted is always willing to jump in to learn – nothing ever fazes him,” Sarah said. “He’s willing to sit with residents just to gain experience and to be a presence. But his experience as a medical student gives him a perspective that most volunteers don’t have. I wish we had a dozen of Ted."

Ted, 23, a native of Chanhasset, Minnesota, knew when he moved to Des Moines to attend medical school that he wanted to make time for volunteering. Volunteerism had been a part of his and his family’s lives when he was growing up, and he quickly became impressed with everything he learned about WesleyLife when he encountered team members at a volunteer fair last year.

“I had worked with seniors previously and knew that was a group I’d like to do something with, if I could,” Ted said. “Then in college, In studied public health – the state of our aging population and the health implications of that, and whether our systems are prepared for people getting older, and for death and dying. So this was a natural fit.”

He also knew that he wanted to gain some experience around end-of-life care, so when he decided to become a WesleyLife volunteer, he asked to spend his time with hospice patients.

“In medical school, we focus on diseases, but I also knew it was important to have contact with real people and see what their lives are like and what they go through in the dying process outside just the concept of medicine,” Ted said. “I had some experience at the academic level with death and dying, but I also wanted to learn about focusing on what the patient is looking for and if their medical care is aligned with the kind of end-of-life experience they’re seeking.”

Ted said he’s impressed with the way WesleyLife hospice team members care for patients, especially the way nurses, aides, and volunteers interact with them on personal and even spiritual levels. He said he’s already learned from the team – and from the patients themselves – that some of his preconceived ideas about hospice didn't necessarily align with reality.

“I had imagined death and dying to be something very fast, but it’s actually a process that takes its own time, and it can actually happen really slowly,” he said. “I’ve learned that it can be good to let go of expectations.”

He said the most important advice he’d give his peers about hospice services is that “the care isn’t really all about medicine at all.”

“There’s the perception that the end of life is about science – the perception that doctors understand the science and know his to fix whatever is wrong,” he said.  “But the most important tool to focus on throughout the whole disease and end-of-life process is the relationships we’re building with our patients – how important it can be to just sit down and listen.”

Ted hasn’t yet chosen a medical specialty, but he said he hopes to continue his association with WesleyLife as long as he’s at DMU, and possibly beyond.

“I plan to volunteer as long as they’ll have me, and ultimately, I’d like to settle in the Midwest,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot through this experience and can only imagine I’ll learn more. I’m grateful for it as someone who’s going to be a doctor, but also just as a human being. I think it’s making me a better person.”

For information about volunteering with WesleyLife, please contact Sarah Underwood at sunderwood@wesleylife.org or (515) 271-6765.

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