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Volunteering Experience: Nightline

Being a London Nightline volunteer has been essential part of my university experience and has been invaluable in teaching me how to be not only a good medical student, but a good person. As part of your Nightline training, you are taught extensive listening skills as well as being trained in empathy, confidentiality, teamwork and various policies and procedures. These are all things I need in my day to day life as a medical student.

On one night shift at Nightline, I have spoken to other students about suicide, homework troubles, domestic abuse, given information about local pizza services and taken an hour long call about homesickness. The massive variation in topics and the ability to be able to deal with these without knowing what is coming next has steered me well for a career in medicine – in a clinic, you never quite know what the next patient will say!

How is volunteering at Nightline different to Medicine?

At Nightline you are taught not to assume anything. We don’t give advice as service because we can never truly know the whole story, and what may work for one caller may not work for another. This is completely different to medicine where you are expected to give advice, prescribe treatments, see patients for follow-up; with Nightline callers, we have no way of telling if they have called before. Every caller is brand new to us, whereas patients we may see many times over the course of a placement.

How is volunteering at Nightline applicable to Medicine?

The assumptions part though, that never changes. Whether it’s a Nightline caller or a patient on a ward, you can’t go in with any preconceived notions, because chances are that person will blow them out of the water. Whether it’s the straight A student who’s struggling with getting good enough grades or the patient who didn’t notice they’d been ill for months, people have a way of surprising you, and Nightline has prepared me well for that.

1. You’ll learn professionalism and empathy

Being able to take every call with the same level of professionalism and kindness is something every doctor will need, no matter how big or small the problem appears to you. It’s also taught me that there is so much more to people than meets the eye, and that as human beings we really only tell half the story at any given time.

I have spoken to students who tell me about being completely fine at university, only to come home and really struggle; I have spoken to young people having problems you’d only expect established adults to have. Nightline has truly broken down any expectations I have of anyone, and that’s something we have to learn as medical students as well.

2. You’ll learn teamwork

The level of teamwork shown to me by the other volunteers is astounding. Whether it’s supporting each other after a difficult call, raising money to keep the service going, or just generally supporting each other on shift, Nightline volunteers are the standard we should all be aiming for. Volunteers support each other just as doctors on a ward do, whether that’s taking over difficult jobs, helping to teach each other new things or just keeping each other motivated. Your Nightline friends are friends for life because you go through everything together- once you’ve seen each other at 3am after a difficult call, you’re bonded for life.

3. You’ll develop listening skills

You learn to listen and truly hear the person speaking. When you take a Nightline call and can’t give advice, you really have to try and understand what’s being said, and that’s something doctors also have to do.

Nightliners are trained not to take a call at face value, just as doctors don’t – we all know the patient who comes in with a cough might actually have lung cancer, just as the caller who wants to speak about their day might actually be wanting to talk about how things have been rough for a while. We treat all problems with the same level of respect- so if they really do want to just talk about their day or have a mild cough, we’re just as understanding.

Words: Katie Hodgkinson

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