Hospital volunteer makes lasting impression

When Weston-super-Mare resident Mary Coombs was forced to spend two months in Weston General Hospital unable to move due to a severe back injury, the care and compassion volunteer Ameer Khan showed to her during her stay impressed her so much she’s now decided to volunteer for the hospital to assist patients needing help with eating and drinking. 


Hospitalised in 2011 due to an abscess on her spine that destroyed several discs, Mary was immobile for about six weeks unable to even sit up. Feeding herself was impossible. So alongside staff she relied on the many volunteers who give their time to help patients eat, which is how she met Ameer.


“The staff were brilliant and really looked after me as I was in a very bad way” said Mary.


“It was extremely difficult for me to eat and I completely lost my appetite. But Ameer helped me through. He sat with me and talked with me and encouraged me to eat little by little. When he found out I liked desert he used to save them up for me! By getting me to eat he helped in my recovery physically and psychologically. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”


The Volunteer Mealtime Assistant (VMA) programme is run by Weston General Hospital. It relies on volunteers who come into the hospital at lunchtime and sit with patients who need help to eat and drink. For some patients the volunteer may be the only visitor they have

during the day.


For Ameer, being part of the programme has given him tremendous satisfaction as well as helping the patients.


“Some patients can’t cope with eating even half a teaspoon of food. So if you can get someone to eat a couple of spoonfuls you feel you’ve achieved something. Patients are not their normal selves because they’re ill. So I always introduce myself, make them feel comfortable and confident with me. I never rush them, let them take their time and then encourage them to eat just a little - exactly as I did with Mary. Then they’re more likely to want to eat more which helps them get better quicker.


“I’ve been part of the VMA programme now for eight years” he continued. When I was first asked to do it I actually refused. I didn’t like the idea of it.  But when I started it gave me so much satisfaction. It’s tremendous fun, you meet nice people and you’re being very, very helpful.


“I remember one man who never had any visitors. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t have any friends. I asked if I could be his friend and he said no and told me to go away. I persevered and eventually through mealtimes he let me talk to him and spend time with him. It was very emotional.”


Sister Ann Abdulgaini, of Kewstoke ward which specialises in care of the elderly describes what a difference it makes to have volunteers on

the ward.


“Some of our patients have cognitive conditions like dementia or like Mary have physical problems which means they can’t feed themselves. We would be lost without our volunteers as it means that nurses can focus on the clinical care of our patients. I see our volunteers being so patient and kind with people and I know how grateful the patients are to have them there. “


Now four years since her stay at Weston General, Mary is fully recovered. She has just started on the VMA training programme to learn how to support patients in the same way that she was.


“Having been there myself I know exactly how people feel being a patient. I owe so much to the volunteers and Ameer in particular so I’m delighted I can give something back. I’m shadowing another volunteer at the moment and in a few weeks time when I’m ready I’ll start doing it myself. I can’t wait!”


Volunteers for the VMA programme need to be available between 12-1:30 weekdays. Full training is provided and a full six months commitment is needed.


Becoming a VMA is just one of the ways people can volunteer for Weston General Hospital. Placements also include receptionists for the front desk, the print room, ‘runners’ between departments, general administration (like photocopying) helping in ED and people to befriend patients.


For more details about how to become a hospital volunteer please contact Sue Tarpey, Voluntary Services Manager on or 01934 636363 ext 3005