‘Hello love, you’re looking well. Fancy a cup of tea? I can make it nice and sweet, just like you.’
Stephen Williams is talking to a small, frail-looking lady sat in a chair on a ward in Blackpool Victoria Hospital’s accident and emergency department.
She looks uncomfortable and unhappy.
She didn’t have anyone to talk to at visiting time because her only son lives in New Zealand.
But that one sentence from Stephen - and as corny as it might have been - makes her smile for the first time all day, and illustrates just how important people like him are.
Stephen is one of the Vic’s 383 volunteers. They spend a minimum of three hours a week at the hospital and do a variety of tasks, from making brews and delivering sandwiches to greeting visitors and showing them how to get to different wards.
Stephen, who spent his working life as front-of-house manager at the resort’s Grand Theatre and has no medical experience, is based in A&E.
This is one of the most stressful and graphic departments of any hospital. The doctors and nurses who work here are on the frontline. They deal with anything from sore fingers and sprained ankles, to cardiac arrests and victims of car crashes.
For Stephen, it’s been an eye-opening but rewarding experience.
“I came here after I retired,” said the 68-year-old, who lives in Peter Street in the centre of town. “I finished work at 65 and a fortnight later remember suddenly feeling completely and utterly lost.
“I needed some framework in my life, so that’s why I volunteered. I come here twice a week and for me it’s great because I know I have something to get up and do - as opposed to finishing last night’s washing-up or watching Jeremy Kyle, which is a pretty sad way to spend your time.”
Stephen spends four hours in A&E on a Thursday and Friday.
It might not sound much but add up the work all the Vic’s volunteer staff do and the figures are startling: last year they worked a total of 88,400 voluntary hours.
The hospital, though, needs more.
Nicci Hayes, in charge of co-ordinating the volunteer scheme, explains why.
“I can’t begin to describe how much volunteers help our staff and, just as importantly, how much they improve the hospital experience for our patients and visitors,” she said.
“Asking someone if they would like a cup of tea and enquiring how they are feeling sounds such a simple thing, but that little bit of social interaction can have a profound effect on a patient’s day.
“On top of that, volunteering to work in our hospital can also help the volunteer themselves.
“It could be a younger person looking to go into medicine so they volunteer to get experience, or it might be someone older who perhaps doesn’t get out of the house much and wants something to fill their time and to give something back.”
We meet one patient during Stephen’s tea round in A&E who can vouch for that.
As Stephen makes her brew, she tells him that she used to volunteer herself.
“I used to go around the hospital with a trolley which had all sorts on it, shampoo, chocolate ... anything you wanted,” she says.
The lady is Dorothy Squires, 88, from South Shore, in A&E because she has hurt her back.
“I volunteered because I lost my husband to cancer and I was on my own,” she says.
“It helped me get out and meet new people.
“The first time I laughed after my husband died was while I was doing the volunteer work.
“I remember thinking ‘I shouldn’t really be laughing’. “But it did me good, and it’s nice to see people like Stephen continuing the good work ... though I’d prefer it if he was serving wine instead of tea!”
One surprising thing is how Stephen is treated by the permanent staff.
You might expect doctors, who train years and sit all sorts of exams to qualify - and who are rushed off their feet treating the mountains of patients that come to A&E on a daily basis - to look down on an elderly volunteer wandering serenely around the wards with a tea-trolley.
But the majority of them say hello and all treat him, if not quite as an equal, then with respect. In other words, they know the job he’s doing is important.
That attitude comes from the top.
“I genuinely think the volunteers we have are as key to the effective running of the department and to patient satisfaction as having doctors or nurses ... I really do regard them as highly as that,” says Simon Tucker, an A&E boss.
“I think sometimes they are perceived as only providing tea and coffee but actually it’s a lot more important than that.
“They provide an invaluable, essential service. They are often underestimated, but when they’re not there you notice the difference.”
Stephen, meanwhile, has finished serving tea and coffee, nipped to the newsagent to buy The Mirror for a patient who isn’t well enough to get out of bed, and is now handing out lunch.
“The way I see it is that we take a bit of pressure off the professionals, we do the slightly more mundane things,” he says while giving a man with his leg in plaster a corned beef sandwich.
“The staff here are so busy.
“If their luck is in and it’s a fairly quiet day, they might get a 10-minute break.
“It is non-stop and they do a fantastic job.
“But because we volunteers aren’t pressurised by any work schedule we can sit down and talk to people, run little errands and listen.
“I spoke to one lady the other day who lived alone and hadn’t spoken to anyone for a month. She told me her life story and at the end said how nice it was to talk.
“Look, volunteering isn’t for everyone. We all know some of the social problems Blackpool has and you do meet all sorts.
“But I have had some wonderful experiences, chatting to people from all walks of life and at the end of the day there is no better feeling than knowing you’ve helped make someone’s day just that little bit brighter.”
Volunteers at the Vic are needed for a variety of tasks, from helping patients fill in survey forms, navigators to direct visitors around the hospital, serving tea and coffee, to proof reading booklets and leaflets.
A fresh recruitment period begins this month, with hospital bosses saying they like volunteers to be able to spare at least three hours-a-week.
To get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (01253) 957381.