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MSIH volunteers provide end-of-life comfort to Soroka Hospital patients

Prior to commencing medical school, Odeya Barayev had been a hospice volunteer in the United States. When she began studying at MSIH in 2019, she noticed that although this type of volunteering was known in Israel, there remained room for improvement; little infrastructure existed for people – especially medical students – to spend time with patients in palliative care.

“I approached Prof. A. Mark Clarfield with an idea,” said Odeya. “He is the former MSIH Director and a life-long geriatrician. I proposed that I set up a program where MSIH students spend time with end-of-life patients. Having worked a lifetime in geriatrics, Prof. Clarfield immediately understood the benefits and quickly connected me with Soroka Hospital’s Prof. Pesach Shvartzman, who is also Chairman of the Israeli Palliative Care Association. From there the project took off.”

Nobody Dies Alone

This all began about two years ago when Odeya was in her first year at MSIH. The idea has since grown into the most dynamic project at MSIH with more than 55 students registered as participants, 40 of them regulars. Students can now be found not just in palliative wards, but throughout the hospital, ensuring that nobody dies alone at Soroka. 

Student volunteers Binil Jacob, Odeya Barayev, and Rachel Lichtenberg

“We work with the head nurses, hospital chaplain, and social workers at Soroka,” explains Odeya. “They identify the patients most in need and make the necessary introductions, then students take it from there.” 

It took Odeya more than a year of preparations before the project commenced. “Students need to be trained and prepared,” she explains. “Such an undertaking is not a simple thing, especially for a first year student with no experience in the hospital. We set up a 10-hour course that discussed death and dying, while giving students practical advice and tips.”

Students start training in the hospital rehabilitation unit, then internal medicine, then the rest of the wards. “It’s a slow process, because it’s a very hard subject. Of course we built an emotional support system to help students who need it.”

At first Odeya intended to train just a handful of students, but word got around very quickly and dozens of students wanted to partake. “First and second year students mostly study in classrooms and labs,” explained Odeya. “The program offers them a break from the routine while introducing them to some of the most difficult issues in patient care. From being buried in books, it reinforces their sense of purpose and reminds them why they wanted to study medicine.”

Most of the patients in the hospital have family support, so students often help when a relative needs a break. “Eventually we want to get out into the community where the situation is very different and many people live alone,” explains Odeya.

The assistance has been particularly important during Covid 19 when hospital staff are already exhausted. Having students on board to help in this critical and sensitive area is hugely significant – and appreciated by everyone. 

Second year students, Sima Shulman and Talya Kresch in the Pediatric Ward with a boy whose family was in Covid isolation

“As far as we’re aware, no other program like this exists in Israel”, says Prof. Clarfield. “So many people benefit: the patients themselves, and their families, then of course, pandemic-weary hospital staff who are very grateful for the assistance. Our students – even those in first year – get training and experience in a difficult area that doctors have to deal with on a daily basis.”

Odeya, now in her very-challenging third year at MSIH, saw the importance of building continuity into the program. “Fortunately, second year MSIH student, Sarina Rubin stepped in and took the reins. She now does most of the coordination and I’m delighted that she’s doing an excellent job.”

“We are very pleased with the program,” said Prof. Shvartzman. “Students from the Israeli medical school will be joining this year and we intend to have it incorporated in the Soroka Hospital consult system.”

“I can’t thank Professors Clarfield and Shvartzman enough,” she says. “They have supported us at every turn and we’ve created a wonderful program that is benefiting everyone involved.”

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