Students help St. Cloud Hospital present HELP program

During the COVID-19 pandemic, doors have been closed all over the world.

But for College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University student volunteers in the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP) at St. Cloud (Minnesota) Hospital, doors have also been opened – both in-person and remotely.

“We’ve piloted and expanded the HELP program and are launching a new course to support this program and tie its opportunities to classroom learning,” said Chris Bolin, visiting assistant professor of English at CSB and SJU.

During fall semester, five CSB and SJU volunteers connected (both on-site and remotely) with patients admitted to St. Cloud Hospital to explore creative writing and have stimulating conversations to prevent the onset of delirium in at-risk patients. During spring semester (B block), the number of CSB and SJU volunteers will swell to 25.

“For patients who are in the Intensive Care Unit, the incidence of delirium is up to 80%,” said Evalyn Michira, a clinical nurse specialist in the St. Cloud Hospital medical section. ‘It does significantly impact their stay here in the hospital. It does impact their treatment, and it also impacts their life overall, once they get discharged. Some patients also do end up developing dementia after developing delirium.”

That’s where HELP comes into play. Originally developed at the Yale School of Medicine, it has been shown to reduce delirium rates by as much as 30%. At St. Cloud Hospital, the program is administered by CSB, SJU and St. Cloud State University students – especially those interested in a medical career.

“Basically, what they (the volunteers) do is come in, interact with patients and just keep them engaged and active during the day,” Michira said. “Hopefully, that will keep the patients’ engaged and they’re sleeping at night. And that, in and of itself, is a huge aspect of delirium prevention.”

Lily Miner, a CSB junior psychology major from Minneapolis, described what a volunteer shift typically looks like.

“It starts with communicating with nurses and hospital staff to get organized for the visits with patients,” Miner said. “In the patient interactions, I like to give them a brief introduction on the HELP program, who I am, and why I have interrupted their day. 

“If a patient seems interested and able to talk, I like to sit down in their room and chat with them about whatever they like. We often talk about their families, their fond memories or their childhoods. If the patient feels up for it, we introduce some poetry/creative writing into the conversation,” Miner said. “In addition, I connect other students who are part of the program on campus, to patients via an iPad. With visitor restrictions in place at the hospital due to COVID-19, the volunteers are sometimes the only outsiders they see.

“I have found that having these conversations with patients makes them feel heard and gives them some normalcy during their hospital stay,” said Olivia Hoff, a CSB junior from Rushford, Minnesota. “In a place where conversations are dominated by their health concerns, it is nice for patients to escape that language for a few minutes and reflect on their accomplishments, experiences and to get excited about returning to their life outside of the hospital.

“During the interactions in which we write poetry together, this is even more of an escape into an imaginative place outside of the patients’ hospital room,” Hoff said.

Nicole Dueland, a CSB senior from Cold Spring, Minnesota, reflected on a patient she worked with this past fall.

“One morning while speaking with the charge nurse, they informed me about a patient who they thought would be a good candidate for the HELP Program,” Dueland said. “The patient had been expressing to nurses that he was feeling lonely and sad while at the hospital. I went into the patient’s room to explain the HELP Program and see if he was interested. He was hesitant and unsure if he would have enough to say to a student but agreed to meet with one of our students, Abby, on the iPad.

“After the conversation, the patient told me how much he enjoyed the conversation and he told me, ‘You have no idea how much that helped me.’ The patient after that conversation was like a new person, open to more conversations, happier and overall seemed to have more energy,” Dueland said.

That brings things back to Bolin, who has an interesting take on this. His wife, Kristin, is a former…

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