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Before You Volunteer ...

By J. Buzz von Ornsteiner, Ph.D.

December 2004

Before You Volunteer ...
Volunteering in an HIV vaccine trial may sound good on paper, but the reality of making a commitment and structuring your life to accommodate that commitment is always a big step -- not just for you but for the people who will then rely on your enrollment. A volunteering commitment for any kind of medical study requires your honest reporting of your past and present behaviors to medical professionals. This would make many people uneasy about releasing such private information and could be seen as a "turn off." Finally in addition to taking an experimental injection, you would be expected to follow up with and follow through in the actual research study -- that is a commitment on your verbal word. So with volunteering there are several expectations that may keep you from taking the final steps to signing up.

Deciding whether to volunteer or not to volunteer is ultimately your decision and if you are having second thoughts then you need to weigh the pros and cons, as this is an important part of that process. Volunteering should add to one's life in a positive way. It should not be looked at as "something you have to do" but rather as something rewarding. There must be a significant trade-off or some kind of pay-off that adds to the volunteering process.

Volunteering to help perfect a drug or vaccine that would lead to ending the infection of HIV/AIDS -- a disease that has taken a heavy toll -- would be a good reason in itself. However, if you have reservations, then the first step would be to gain as much information as you can on the particular study and hopefully allay your concerns through education. Getting educated on what you what to volunteer for is just important as volunteering. Below are some suggestions:

  1. The first step is to call up the volunteer program of your interest and gain additional information on the program. Ask as many questions ask you can. This will help you in your selection process. Discuss times you would be expected or able to volunteer, areas where you will be expected or able to go, locations outside of the programs that maybe included in your volunteering, and any aspects that may be stressful when volunteering. This first phone call should give you a better picture of your volunteer situation. Additional information should clarify what the volunteering experience will be like.

  2. After your phone call, request an interview to see the volunteer site and the people you would be volunteering with. Everyone is seeking a sense of belonging so it is very important to see yourself as "fitting in" with this program.

  3. At your interview, it is always helpful to discuss your issues of concern and to speak with other volunteers. If you are still unclear on what your role would be or how the volunteer day would be conducted, ask if you could have a trial run -- for a number of days to see how you would adjust. This would be difficult for a medical program but not for other volunteer sites.

  4. Finally, remember volunteering is only a productive experience if it adds significantly to your life in a positive way. The more you know about any new kind of experience the better you will be able to process it and then feel more secure in your decision making. Sometimes volunteering takes some time to adjust to, so please give it a good shot -- the true payoff is that you are helping others in need and working toward a cause you believe in. Good luck!

J. Buzz von OrnsteinerDr. J. Buzz von Ornsteiner is a clinical psychologist and the "Psychologically Speaking" columnist for Body Positive Magazine.

Back to Body Positive magazine, Vol. XVII, No. 4.

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