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Volunteering at the children’s hospital over the holidays

MD/PhD student Tim Keyes left the lab for a week and reconnected with patients, volunteering at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford.

As a fifth-year MD/PhD student currently squirreled away in lab for my research years, I've come to miss the "human element" of medicine that comes with face-to-face patient care.

For the past few months especially, I've been looking for ways to balance my research in the basic sciences with a bit more time at the hospital interacting with actual people. So, when my advisor Kara Davis, DO, mentioned that some of the holiday programs at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford could use an extra pair of hands this year, I leapt at the opportunity to get involved.

For the past week, I've been volunteering with the Child Life and Creative Arts team, a group that I hadn't heard about before this year, but whom I now feel is one of Stanford Medicine's best-kept secrets. The Child Life team is responsible for organizing a wide array of educational, therapeutic and recreational programs for children in the hospital. Each year during the holidays, they manage the annual toy drive, a (massive!) endeavor that gives children too sick to leave the hospital several toys from their holiday wish lists. All of this is done with incredible care, and I had the joy of being a part of it this year.

My first tasks were carrying, unboxing and sorting what felt like an infinite number of donated toys. I dutifully separated crayons from colored pencils, Transformers from Avengers action figures, and Paw Patrol animals from various Pokémon. Each item was on someone's wish list, and I ended up working up quite a sweat making sure that as many toys as possible ended up in their proper place. At one point, another volunteer and I spent 30 minutes looking for the last item on the wish list of a little boy who loved Minions --  and it ended up being on the bottom of one of the last boxes we searched! (Finding that Minion felt like a Christmas miracle.) One by one, we filled individualized bags with a few toys from each child's wish list and snuck them into various storage locations throughout the hospital for delivery on Christmas morning.

The definite highlight of my week, however, was accompanying Santa Claus as he visited each and every patient at Packard Children's the day before Christmas Eve. As kids ran up to hug, sing carols and share their holiday wishes with Mr. Kringle, I followed behind him to help take pictures and pass out his annual gift -- a copy of the picture book The Bear and the Star. Standing six feet tall, I wasn't sure if I made a convincing elf even with the red boots and long, red hat I was wearing, but I did my best to look as jolly and knowledgeable about the toy-making process as possible as we made our way from room to room. Watching patients interact with Santa was really heart-warming, and I was happy to play my small part in making the holidays a bit brighter for the families we visited.

Another favorite moment was when one unit's nursing staff asked me to record a video of them dancing with Santa, which ended up going viral on the social media app TikTok the next day. I loved that moment because it subverted the expectation that spending the holidays at a hospital would be...well, a little depressing.

Instead, during this and my other experiences volunteering this year, I found myself surrounded by optimism, resilience and hope -- from patients, from their families and from their health care teams. Overall, it was humbling and uplifting, and I plan to carry those feelings with me into the new year and the rest of my career.

Stanford Medicine Unplugged is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category

Tim Keyes is an MD/PhD student in Stanford's Medical Scientist Training Program. He likes microglia, snowmobiles, pop music written for teenage girls, and going on terrible first dates. Follow him on Twitter at @timothykeyes

Photo of Tim Keyes and Santa Claus at Lucile Packard Children's Stanford courtesy of Tim Keyes

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