FIRST Hand reaches out to HIV/AIDS community with unwavering love and support.
Contributed By Lee Wei Fang
FIRST Hand is a community service branch of local community service provider, City Harvest Community Services Association. FIRST Hand was birthed out of a simple response to a genuine need, when CHCSA was first approached to help reach out to a couple diagnosed with Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
Herman Lim, a staff member of CHCSA who heads FIRST Hand, says, “We recognized then that there was need to provide support for Human Immunodeficiency Virus/AIDS victims, and that was how FIRST Hand was birthed.”
The volunteer group started in 1997 with a core of six members, which has since grown to an 80-strong team. This growth can be attributed to a push for better public education, aimed at dispelling common misconceptions on HIV/AIDS, combined with a growing pool of volunteers who have a desire to serve the terminally-ill.
FIRST Hand’s highly dedicated volunteers conduct weekly ward visitations to approximately 15 patients at the Communicable Diseases Centre of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Additionally, the home visitation teams regularly follow-up on 30 to 40 HIV/AIDS sufferers who have been discharged. Other services by FIRST Hand include nuitrition support and quarterly excursions for clients.
In Aug 2010, FIRST Hand started a new befriending program with Ang Mo Kio Rehabilitation Hospital. Volunteers would visit patients who suffer from spinal injury, brain injury, stroke, and have limited mobility. During the course of interaction, volunteers will also update the nurses of any medical needs, so as to enhance the rehabilitation service provided for these patients.
THE FIRST HAND TO REACH OUT
The experience of a FIRST Hand volunteer is a bittersweet one. The joy of being able to make a positive impact meets the harsh reality that these patients have a long-drawn battle with an incurable disease.
The importance of the humble volunteer cannot be denied. Dr. Lee Cheng Chuan, a senior consultant in Tan Tock Seng Hospital with 15 years of experience practicing in the field of infectious diseases and HIV medicine, says, “The volunteer is a crucial part of the HIV management team. When a patient is discharged from the hospital, doctors and nurses lose the daily contact with the patients. However, volunteers do the groundwork with regular follow-ups, and provide continued management through the provision of comfort, care, and support. They are the befrienders, companions and counselors to whom the HIV/AIDS sufferers can turn to. Volunteers are a very important aspect in the holistic treatment of a patient with HIV/AIDS.”
Patients may spend just one week in the wards, but the rest of their time is spent outside the watch of the medical professionals, Dr. Lee points out. Hence, volunteers are arguably not just an optional, but an integral part of HIV/AIDS management. “According to the definition provided by the World Health Organization, ‘health’ is not just the absence of disease and infirmity, but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.”
Due to the sensitivity and nature of the illness, all volunteers are required to undergo professional mandatory training by Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s HIV/AIDS management team. These training sessions are conducted annually over a four-week period, and cover in depth knowledge on HIV/AIDS, the common misconceptions, prevalence, precautions, and many more. [See box story]
FIRST CLASS LOVE AND SERVICE
Volunteers bring cheer to the patients with their companionship, friendship and love. A strong message of acceptance is brought across with Touch and Aroma Therapy sessions, where volunteers gently massage the patient’s feet with soothing oils. Not only does this help to moisturize the patient’s skin and work out the muscles, it also brings a much-needed human touch to the patients, many of whom go through a myriad of pain and emotions on a daily basis.
Joanna Lim, a veteran volunteer of four years, and the in-charge for the ward teams at FIRST Hand, shares her experience.
“Serving with FIRST Hand has been a life-changing experience. I decided to become a social worker after joining the ministry. I vividly remember serving this patient who was in the last stage of the illness. He was half blind, and could not speak. However, we knew he was aware of our presence, and we would hold his hands and play some songs for him whenever we visited. We did this every week for about three months. One day, when we were about to leave, he looked towards our direction and waved goodbye to us. He has since already passed on, but this experience has really left a deep impact on me.”
Herman adds, “Sometimes we think that changing a life requires big actions and big words. However, this patient taught us that our touch and presence were more than able to bring comfort and joy to his heart. I believe we brought warmth and peace in the last few months of his life. It’s possible to change lives, it’s not all that complicated. I believe that every volunteer can change the life of a patient.”
These volunteers are beacons of light for many HIV/AIDS sufferers—it’s in their presence that acceptance is found, not debilitating blame. FIRST Hand volunteers are a quiet, solid presence giving unconditional support and love. It doesn’t matter how or where these patients contracted the disease, but the life thereafter that matters. These volunteers are committed to making that life count.
FIRST Hand plans to actively push for greater reach and efficiency. Head of FIRST Hand Herman Lim says, “In the next five years, we hope to be able to grow our pool of volunteers to about 150 people. We need more people in order to continue serving the HIV/AIDS community more effectively.” Truly, FIRST Hand lives up to their name of being the First Hand to reach out to a group of people that are misunderstood and rejected.
Facts and Figures (as of Dec 31, 2010):
• Total number of patients helped: 203
• Average number of weekly visitations conducted: 119
• Welfare support recipients: 193