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President's Message - Volunteerism as a Gift of Yourself

Jerry J. Zimmerman, MD, PhD, FCCM

Most of us probably read The Prophet by Khalil Gibran sometime during our college days and can vaguely recall the beauty and depth of almost every word. Chapter 5 of this precious, compact text of humanism includes this insight: “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” Innumerable testimonies have confirmed that, when this happens, both the recipient and the giver are rewarded.

When I was a young attending critical care practitioner, I was invited to visit a children’s hospital in Santiago, Chile. During my visit, I was stuck by the sophistication of the medical team who were delivering quality care but who lacked much of the equipment, especially pulmonary monitoring and support devices, to which I was accustomed. When I returned home to Madison, Wisconsin, USA, and the University of Wisconsin Children’s Hospital, I brainstormed with some respiratory therapy colleagues about this state of affairs. Almost immediately, multiple pieces of equipment that were perfectly useable but had been relegated to the sidelines were identified for alternative use. Subsequently, an advertisement in a respiratory care journal prompted donation of other surplus equipment. Multiple people became energized at the prospect of what might happen with a little organization. In ongoing correspondence with the physicians in Santiago, I learned of a cargo boat that was headed from Chile to the eastern United States with a load of fruit and that would be empty on its return voyage.

So, that memorable summer, I loaded up equipment from Madison and Iowa City onto my ever-faithful green Datsun pickup truck. My grade-school son and I picked up additional items in Chicago and Cleveland, and we headed toward the Port of Philadelphia along Interstate 80, discovering scrapple for breakfast along the way. When we unloaded our precious treasure, it occupied a miniscule amount of space on that massive cargo vessel, but we both felt relieved and satisfied. And our reward was just starting. On the way back to Wisconsin, we visited Niagara Falls and scooted along the northern borders of the Great Lakes for three or four days. This once-ina-lifetime experience with my son is one of my fondest memories. The fruit boat returned to Chile, and all of the equipment was trucked to the children’s hospital in Santiago, where it was immediately put to use.

This experience is not intended to be a model of altruism; it just happened, because people said “yes.” A little planning, of course, but mostly can-do attitude made this work. These days, when I am not in the pediatric ICU or on the road, once a month I help prepare and serve a hot meal to a homeless tent community in Seattle. People of all sorts volunteer to get involved with this project because it generates so much fellowship in the kitchen and in the tent city. Chopping vegetables while debating the merits of the Seahawks versus the Packers is good for the soul. Recipients of a hot meal on Sunday evening when it is drizzling, dark, and 40 degrees are so incredibly grateful that it is honestly embarrassing. Listening to their stories makes me realize the delicate balance in which we all live—consistently, this is an important grounding experience.

Of course, giving money to one’s favorite charities is also incredibly important. Many noble causes would fall by the wayside if conscientious people quit caring about each other. However, this type of giving, although essential in our increasingly economically polarized communities, often feels distant and detached. Frequently there is a lack of personal feedback regarding the results of the giving intervention. On the other hand, volunteerism really is suited to the obsessive-compulsive personality and need for immediate gratification that (stereotypically) characterizes critical care providers. Random acts of kindness, anywhere, any time, can bring volunteerism up close and personal in real time. It is sort of like thinking on one’s feet, as critical care practitioners do as a matter of fact. Everyone smiles and benefits, whether the activity occurs out in the open or anonymously

Now, closer to our organizational home: Although the Society of Critical Care Medicine (SCCM) boasts a talented and dedicated professional staff who are involved in many venues of volunteerism themselves, SCCM’s infrastructure derives from member volunteerism— composing review questions, grading abstracts, making telephone calls, conducting Fundamentals classes, serving on committees, delivering review course lectures, sharing novel or controversial content in the Twittersphere, writing guidelines, reviewing funding applications, and working on disaster relief. Our multiprofessional organization of critical care providers knows how to get things done and enjoys doing it. By actively engaging in SCCM and becoming part of the Creative Community, you will learn how a successful professional organization functions while personally honing your own accountability, respect for diversity of every kind, and teamwork and leadership skills. These are fast times at Mount Prospect, and SCCM needs to expand its membership and its members’ engagement in order to thrive as an organization. The currency for this growth is volunteerism—you will not be disappointed in your investment.