Erik Richardson enrolled at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg planning to make business his major. Instead, he has made it his business to help dozens of cystic fibrosis patients at nearby All Children’s Hospital and create a major impact as a senior USFSP pre-med student.
The 25-year-old Floridian by way of New England is the founder and organizer of Pre-Med Pals, a program that allows 16 of his pre-med classmates to volunteer at All Children’s. The focus of the group, which started a year ago, is to spend several hours, two nights per week, with cystic fibrosis patients – playing games, watching TV, helping with homework or just hanging out.
| Erik Richardson with fellow USFSP students Keun Young Jo, |
Everett Rogers, Stephanie Tominaga and Jordan McBride.
As a busy senior with a demanding school schedule, it would be understandable if Richardson simply buried himself in his biology studies and focused on graduating in May. Far from it. He has made the spirit of giving and volunteerism at All Children’s as much a part of his curriculum as class time.
In his freshman year, Richardson volunteered in the hospital pharmacy. He enjoyed the work and decided to earn his license to become a pharmacy tech, allowing him to work part-time at All Children’s the past two years. Being immersed in the hospital atmosphere – coupled with a profoundly meaningful mission trip to a health clinic in Guatemala – made Richardson know he’d made the right decision to switch his major and focus on a medical career.
But he didn’t stop there. On campus, he formed a USF pre-med club for future physicians to meet and support one another. And at the hospital, he began volunteering in Parent Coffee, the program in which staffers make early-morning rounds to hospital rooms and deliver free coffee and pastries to grateful, bleary-eyed parents.
That’s when it hit him. “Doing Parent Coffee gave me the idea of finding a way for members of my pre-med club to volunteer at the hospital, too,” he said. “When I was working in the Pharmacy IV room, you're completely isolated. But Parent Coffee gave me the chance to see patients I was preparing medication for. I wanted my club members to be able to experience that same kind of one-on-one interaction."
Richardson contacted Ryan Perry, then managing Volunteer Resources, to discuss ways members of his group to offer their services in a useful way. Perry was intrigued and brought the idea up to his wife, Carolyn Perry, RN of the All Children’s infection prevention department.
“She’d been telling him about a group of CF patients and how they were in need of extra volunteers,” Richardson recalled. “So he said, ‘What if we took your club and worked with this group of patients – that’s what we need right now. Is this something you’d be interested in?’ I said, ‘’Yes, definitely.’ ”
Child Life embraced the initiative, playing an integral role in coordinating the visits of the premed volunteers. Meanwhile, the students learned of the extra care that needs to be taken with kids dealing with the chronic disease of the lungs and digestive system.
The thick mucus that clogs the lungs can lead to infections, requiring that patients remain in isolation for as long as two weeks while receiving treatment informally called “tune ups.” As a result, the patients wear protective masks when they leave their rooms and can’t be in the presence of other CF patients – and Pre-Med Pals volunteers had to be trained in isolation techniques, learning the proper times to wear masks, gowns and gloves.
The question of how to make the goodwill visits work still needed to be resolved. The ranks of his premed club had already swelled to some 180 students, far too many to bring in his volunteers at All Children – especially considering the long list of people waiting to volunteer at the hospital already. Richardson addressed the issue by using a software program to create a rotation of students from his pre-med club, filling two open slots every Monday and Thursday (though sometimes more come).
Initially, the USF volunteers participating in Pre-Med Pals numbered seven, but the group has expanded to 20 – and students now have to apply due to competition for limited slots. There’s even talk of bringing the program to other populations of patients. Richardson has moved from a volunteer role to that of coordinator. And members of Child Life work closely with each student, letting them know what patients are in the hospital and need a boost from a visitor.
“Because it’s 6-8 p.m., it’s kind of a transition time – parents may be arriving or not there yet and the kids may be eating dinner,” Richardson explained. “It’s kind of a lonely time of night. So it’s a great time for us to show up. We can spend up to two hours with one patient. We can just chill or play video games with them, or take a walk in the hospital if the nurses are okay that the child leaves the room.”
On a recent evening, 18-year-old Alex Dobbs was one of only a handful of CF patients on 8 South, the unit where CF patients are usually found. They welcomed a visit from USF students Everett Rogers, Keun Young, Jordan McBride and Richardson. Alex has especially enjoyed playing pool during the pre-med visits. On this night, they chatted outside his room and joined him for some TV-watching. Invariably, the pre-med contingent seems to get just as much out of these sessions as the patients.
“When I first heard the program, I thought it sounded like an awesome opportunity,” said Rogers, a Clearwater native. “It sounded like a win-win-win – a win for us that we get to come in and get experience in the hospital working with kids; a win for the kids because they get some entertainment and someone to hang out with; and a win for the hospital because they get volunteers that they need. The Child Life specialists get spread kind of thin. So I see this as a very valuable use of my time.”
Jordan McBride of Indian Shores echoed the sentiment: “You can go home and study when you want to. And you can also come in here and help other people. That’s what we want to do being in the end, so this gives us hands-on experience and a chance to brighten other people’s day.”
Fellow USFSP student Stephanie Tominaga, who moved to the area from Brazil, credits Richardson for making it all happen.
“We owe everything we’re doing here to Erik,” she said. “He’s done so much – not only for our community and the kids here, but for the students as a whole.”
His work is equally appreciated by the hospital. "Erik is a person with a lot of passion and compassion, and his dedication in putting this program together with all the demands on his time is very impressive," said Brittany Nelms, a Volunteer Services Coordinator at ACH. "We really appreciate everything he's done."
Richardson first learned about All Children's when he suffered a serious knee injury while playing for Shorecrest Preparatory School's basketball team as a junior. Though he wound up graduating from high school in Fort Myers, he never forgot about how he'd received such good care from the hospital. And he liked the idea of giving to it when he enrolled at USFSP four years ago.
It made further sense given the medical background of his parents. His mother was an OB/GYN and his father worked as a pharmacist in Tampa. After earning his pharmacy technician license, Richardson spent a year working alongside his dad to learn get hands-on experience before becoming an ACH pharmacy tech two years ago.
All the while, he’s set his sights on another calling at All Children’s – becoming a surgeon. He looked up several ACH surgeons on line to learn about them and see their photo, then introduced himself when he ran into them in the hospital. That led to him shadowing several physicians, hoping to learn more about his primary interest of minimally invasive surgery. Richardson already has a plan for his future. He will be applying to USF’s College of Medicine for 2014 – and hopes to wind up practicing at All Children’s, making a difference in the lives of kids in need.
You might say he’s already off to a great start.