By: Isabella Nielsen
When I first joined Footprints, I felt intimidated. I knew I loved working with kids, but I was always nervous as a non pre-med student that I did not have what constituted as a “good volunteer.” I was certainly wrong! Within my first few months of footprints, it was stressed constantly to me that what we do is not about medicine—it’s about bringing comfort and companionship to kids. Within the first day volunteering over a year ago, I knew I was at the right place.
I’ve switched units and had new shift buddies for the three semesters I’ve volunteered at Shands, but one thing has always been consistent: every semester I volunteer, when it ends, I always feel as though I have a little family I’m leaving, from the kids I see to my fellow volunteers on the shift, to the staff and child life specialists. Well, this semester, my family was Fridays 3-6. And on Fridays 3-6, there was a patient who I met very early on into my semester. When I first met them, they wanted to play Minecraft, and I was ecstatic. Being a Footprints member over the years I have realized I am still, even at 21, excited to revisit games and memories from my childhood. Kids at Shands see a lot of people everyday (nurses, specialists, meals dropped off, visitors) but when they see us in our blue polos, they know our only job is simply to play. To Minecraft, to draw, to paint, to dance, to Uno—to do anything, and most times, to do things I’ve loved and missed. So when I met this patient for the first time, I was happy to let them know I loved Minecraft, and would love to play with them. What I didn’t know and would come to learn is that I was actually horrendous at playing Minecraft! I had spent my childhood days in creative mode, making pretty houses on easy mode with no work, but my patient was no creative mode player! They were survival mode only, so that’s what we played. And we laughed together about how terrible I was, even though I had claimed to be a pro initially. My patient taught me everything I needed to know about crafting a sword, defeating scary skeletons, how to build a fort, and by the end of my shift, I let them know the next time they would see me, I would be the pro I had claimed to be.
We played Minecraft a lot this semester. We met many Villagers, talked about our favorite songs together while we defeated Creepers, and made our homes through survival mode only. (My patient was ecstatic about my improvement throughout the semester. I had become a worthy co player!) This patient also was well-known by my shift buddies, and we would rotate who would see them each week. One week, it was my turn to see them again, but no Minecraft was played. My patient wanted a volunteer who wanted to dance, and I love dancing, so I went straight to their room. We came up with an entire routine for about an hour, had disco lights and music filling the room, and we even showcased our performance to my patients’ favorite nurses. I was sweating by the end of our performance, as was my patient! We had shimmied our way to exhaustion.The patient then asked if I could read to them. They had said the sound of people talking helps them sleep, something about feeling safe when they close their eyes, they said. The patient didn’t need to say more as I had understood. I grabbed a book and read. I got all the way to the end of the first chapter and to the end of my shift, and looked at my patient, and sure enough, they were soundly asleep in their little makeshift hospital bed fortress they had made. I left the room where we had spent hours training in Minecraft and singing along to music and joking and laughing, and that was the last time I saw the patient.
Within a few days, the patient would be discharged. I would learn this at my next shift. I’ve come to learn it’s a weird feeling building connections and memories with the kids we see and then not seeing them again. When my shift buddies and I learned the news that the patient had been discharged, it was a mix of reactions. At first, we were all a bit shocked and sad to not see them again, but then of course, the relief came. Our patient that we had come to know and love was out of the hospital, and hopefully, it meant that they were out there somewhere in the sun in a park coming up with full-blown dance routines. I’ll never forget the connection I had with that patient, nor will I forget how comforting it was to be surrounded by four shift buddies who experienced similar connections with the patient. In my time at Footprints, I have learned many things, but I think most importantly I’ve learned how important little moments are and the connections we share. Nothing ever has to be grand--it can be as simple as learning how to play a video game just to provide someone company. I’ve had some of my funniest, silliest, and happiest college memories in the hospital, which if I read that sentence three years ago before I knew what Footprints was I would’ve been entirely confused. Which is why it’s all so important. Coming up with a silly dance routine and learning cool hacks in Minecraft is what I did as a child, and I’m so happy that Footprints members can bring any sense of normalcy and silliness to a place that is not normally known for that. I’m always so touched by the connections and relationships we build, and I’m so happy my hours volunteering have culminated into skills like being a “pro” at Minecraft, knowing dance routines, crafts, drawing, painting, talking about Fortnite and Pokémon, because it shows me at Footprints it’s about the tiny, silly, random moments and bonding of childhood that are really worth putting our time into. I know it makes a difference, and I’m so happy to be a part of an organization that recognizes and cherishes those moments constantly.
Isabella Nielsen is a Junior majoring in English. She joined Footprints Spring 2022.