Why Volunteer? From Pure Altruism To The Most Selfish Of Motives

by J. Lauren Crawford, M.D.

Volunteering for a charitable organization, especially one with a medical purpose, is often viewed through the most rose-colored of lenses.  Your intent in such a mission is to save or at least significantly better the lives of the needy.  Without your participation, a void may never be filled or a certain measure of hope may be lost.  You can argue the world will always have need and thus the volunteer will always be vital.

So, what’s in it for the volunteer?  Is that an immoral question?  People are very uncomfortable discussing the personal benefits of spending their time, money, and talent for a charity.  The volunteer, and especially a surgeon, should be a bastion of high virtue and thinking not of themselves but always others.  But, is pure altruism even possible?

I would argue that altruism can easily exist right along side selfishness.  And, that’s ok.  There are selfish needs that are fed through volunteer opportunities and keep people coming back.  People keep skin in the game that way and their partially altruistic gesture may become a lifelong endeavor that benefits all involved.

My favorite charitable organization is my local Austin Smiles and I have caught the bug.  Providing cleft lip and palate and other surgery on an annual mission trip to Central America is becoming a passion for me.  The trips are amazing in so many ways.  I feel immensely grateful for having the opportunity to get involved.  I am convinced that the missions are part of the cure for burnout.  Happiness is derived from perspective.  And, you get a hefty dose from your volunteer service.

I hope my children find a way to give back that is similarly intoxicating.  I suppose this is why I am now writing about it.  I’d like to explain my motivations for going on these trips.  I’ll start with the most selfless reasoning and move on through my more self-centered inspiration.

1)  Helping others.  Simplistic as this is, it is absolutely appealing without a further secondary gain.  It’s a clean reason.  You see need in the world.  You can help fix something.  You help someone the way you would want someone to help you.  It’s the golden rule.  You want to be a good person.  You can achieve that by helping others.  If your life has fallen into a sort of moral mediocrity, you can become resplendent once again.

2)  Righting a wrong.  This need does not exist in our country.  Surgical needs such as these always finds care at home.  Due to poverty, inequality, or various failures of a developing country, a child may not get a necessary surgery.  That child may not have the same educational, job, or social opportunities that a child born without a deformity would have.  It may be impossible to get married because of the stigma.  It is inherently unfair.  In an imperfect world in which crushingly unfair things happen every day, you can help right a wrong.

3)  Long lasting impact, creating a legacy.  If you volunteer routinely, the organization stays healthy and can continue to provide services.  You become a part of that legacy.  You become part of the long lasting impact- not just on the life of a few patients but on a community of people.  Your participation may inspire others to join.  You become part of an ethical tradition of activity.

4)  Representing the idealism of America.  Old fashioned idealism.  It isn’t quite dead even in those who have aged beyond 25 years.  Other countries don’t always have the best view of our American culture.  But, we can have sway.  We aren’t invading to tell a country how to fight or how to organize a government.  We come to help and to heal.  We come to educate others how to care for these patients and sometimes even how to organize their own surgical teams.  We pass on our highest standards of surgical practice and treat these children as if they were our own.  Idealism at its best.

5)  Pride.  The results are dramatic.  The reactions that parents have to a deformity that is now fixed in a matter of 2 hours are priceless.  The most stoic eyes well up with tears.  It is a source of immense pride for me.  You simply do not see this in your regular practice.  Your heart is full.  Your soul is well fed.

6)  Practicing medicine the way it was meant to be practiced.  This is a tremendous feeling.  There are no letters or phone calls to insurance companies.  There is no difficulty getting a hold of referring doctors.  Egos are checked at the door.  We practice as a team.  The patient is the focus and having an excellent and safe outcome is the goal.  There is very little paperwork.  There is no worry about law suits.  There are no silly regulations to follow.  And, the team work is amazing.  I have met some of the finest doctors, nurses, techs, and aids you can imagine.  And, they are working for free with a common purpose.  It is just pure medicine.  It is freedom.

7)  The challenge.  You arrive in a different country and figure out the system in a new operating environment.  Your Spanish may not be excellent.  You have to meet a family who must trust you to keep their baby safe in surgery the very next day.  You do not usually perform cleft surgery each day of the week or at all in your private practice life.  You need to be both good and efficient.  You do not have every comfort of your home operating facility with you but you need to make this work.  You see some unusual clefts.  You do without the convenience of the presurgical care you would get in the US.  It’s a challenge to you as a surgeon and it is a unique one.  Complacency melts away.  It’s a place to recharge your academic interest in plastic surgery.

8)  The connections.  People love you for volunteering and you love them right back.  The shared compassion grabs you.  You make unexpected friendships.  Fellow volunteers learn about each other and build respect in that tight week of activity.  If you are a leader in the group, your skills grow.  People take notice.  They may even refer you a patient.  You have enhanced your versatility within your own community and your commitment towards the organization might even expand your career opportunities.  Or, you might realize that you were destined to have a larger role in non-profits.  This might even be your second career.  So much can potentially come of these bonds you have forged with people who might otherwise know nothing about you.

9)  Exploration.  Chances are, without Austin Smiles, I never would have traveled to El Salvador or Guatemala.  They have become unique countries to visit and somewhat unsafe in some ways.  My understanding of the world has broadened due to my connection to these countries and spending time with their people.  There is so much beauty that would be unknown to me without these trips.  It has become my favorite type of tourism- do something, see something.  I’ve never been one to sit still for very long around a swimming pool.

10)  My family might just be proud of me.  The routine around a plastic surgeon’s life can begin to be just that, routine and slightly mundane.  There is no longer much about my career that seems particularly heroic or exotic in the eyes of my family.  I think this happens with most careers.  Patterns settle in and your job is taken for granted.  Then you get a chance to prove the huge value of your skill set to your family by performing major and life altering surgery for about 20 patients in one week!  Your trip photos prove that you were even operating in the vicinity of a volcano!  You are now ‘rad’ or ‘cool’ or ‘legit’ depending on what decade your child was born into.  It’s a joy to feel important to people.  There is no greater satisfaction than to have your husband and children believe in you.

And, let’s just throw in there that my husband and family are amazing for supporting me in this work.  Without the support of your family caring for your kids and colleagues back home looking after your patients, it would not be possible.

Yes, I will encourage my children to find their own way to serve.  Absolutely.  Without charity, the world would be spectacularly harsh.  If you are born to privilege, it should be a priority action.  It will give your life a deeper meaning.  I refuse to believe that we are here only to professionally succeed and cherish our family and friends.  While those goals of our daily lives hold the most importance, there has to be more that can make ourselves relevant.  Bettering the world is both altruistic and selfish.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And hey, let’s just back off the intensity for a moment here and admit that it’s just fun.  I have pictures from our most recent Guatemala trip in the fall of 2015 as proof.  Seeing the sights of Antigua is now something checked off the bucket list!

Please check out Austin Smiles at www.austinsmiles.org!

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