The Sunday Magazine

How students are making hospital intensive care units less intense for patients and their families

ICUs can be terrifying places, where patients are desperately ill, the medical staff is under pressure and families feel overwhelmed. In Montreal, a group of university students won an award for a new initiative that is designed to help.
In the Bridge Program, student volunteers staff desks at ICU entrances from early morning through late evening. Dr. David Hornstein, right, came up with the idea for the program. (David Gutnick)

All Matthew and Alyssa Salaciak wanted to do was get to their mom's bedside as quickly as possible. 

Rosario D'Alessio had leukemia, and when things took a sudden turn for the worse, she was admitted to one of the two intensive care units at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital. 

Through the ICU's sliding glass doors Matthew and Alyssa could see monitors, tubes and walls of blinking lights surrounding each bed. Their mom was in one of them. 

But which one? No way were they going to wander around the ICU and risk getting in the way of medical teams on high alert.

Matthew Salaciak discovered the ICU Bridge Program when his mom was in intensive care. (David Gutnick)

Intensive care units are, almost by definition, terrifying places. Seconds and minutes count.  And families arriving to see their loved ones are overwhelmed. Where to go? What to do? Who to talk to?

In Montreal, the ICU Bridge Program is an award-winning initiative run entirely by university students that's trying to make the experience a little different for visitors. 

Student volunteers staff desks at ICU entrances from early morning through late evening. The Bridge Program began three years ago with 14 student volunteers, most from health science disciplines. It grew quickly. Now there are 160 volunteers from seven Quebec universities.

Dr. David Hornstein came up with the idea for the Bridge Program after speaking to the mother of Lauren Alexander, a McGill student who had been admitted to the Montreal General Hospital's ICU. Hornstein is an intensive care and internal medicine physician there. 

"Lauren's mom reflected to me that it was a terrifying experience," says Hornstein. "When she had arrived, the desk was empty, and it would have been much more helpful to have a nice, kind human face there to welcome them."

"That stayed in my mind, and I was looking for a way that we could do that."

After a chance encounter with a couple of McGill students, the project was underway. 

The key to the Bridge Program is facilitating the act of kindness.- Dr. David Hornstein

Adamo Donovan is a PhD student at McGill and the program's co-founder and volunteer director. 

When Donovan is not studying, he's helping other student executives do the organizing. With students having to fit their volunteering in between exams and semester breaks, that can be complicated.

"I can see all the schedules on my phone," says Donovan. "This works because we can co-ordinate a student's availability and what's needed in the intensive care units."

Dr. David Hornstein with Adamo Donovan, PhD student and the program's co-founder and volunteer director. (David Gutnick)

"The key to the Bridge Program is facilitating the act of kindness," says Hornstein. "Whether the story ends well for the patient or badly, the support the family needs is huge."

"Having Bridge Program people — volunteers who talk to them on a human level and escort them in and out and make them feel more comfortable — makes them more likely to just open up and makes everything just a little more relaxed so you can relate on a human level." 

Matthew Salaciak's mother died in 2018. After seeing up close how the Bridge volunteers made ICU visits easier for so many families, Salaciak decided that he wanted to be part of the growing team. Now, a couple of times a week, he sits at a desk in the same ICU where he and his sister were looking for their mom.

"Sharing time with people," he says, "is a very beautiful thing." 

Click 'listen' above to hear David Gutnick's full documentary


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