Spotlight on a recent BSVM alum, Mark Conforti (’19-’20)! Listen to his interview with BSVM Recruiter (and former volunteer) Paula Hastings (’18-’19) as they discuss stories from his service and he offers advice for those discerning a year of service. Watch the full interview or read an abbreviated transcript below:
[Note: PH = Paula Hastings (interviewer); MC = Mark Conforti (interviewee)]
PH: Hello and welcome! My name is Paula Hastings. I’m the Volunteer Recruiter for Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry and an alum from 2018-2019. And I am joined by Mark Conforti, welcome Mark!
MC: Hey everyone! Thank you Paula for that introduction. As she said, my name is Mark Conforti, I am a graduate from Villanova University from the year 2019, and I was in the 2019 to 2020 service year for the Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry. Currently I’m in my first year of medical school at Rowan School of Osteopathic Medicine in South Jersey. I’m really happy to be here today Paula.
Q: What were you doing before you even thought of BSVM?
MC: Like I said, I went to Villanova and was very much concerned about school. I majored in biology and I was pretty involved on campus. I was an RA I did volunteer like EMT stuff. Since starting college, I knew I wanted on the medical field, so a lot of my college experiences aligned with getting healthcare experiences and determining if I wanted to be a doctor or not. For a while, I was very much planning on going right after college; applying to medical school and getting in right after my senior year. But things kind of turn up on their head.
I found that it was very stressful to prepare during my junior year because I would need to take the MCAT during my junior year. And it was a lot of stress associated with that; I started questioning my decision on whether or not like I wanted to do medicine, and so it opened up the opportunity to start thinking about other things.
I actually first heard about this program from like another alumni that did the program a couple of years ago. Her name was Claire and she was a Villanova graduate and she came back on campus, and that was the first instance during my junior year where like, maybe I should start considering service a little bit.
PH: Yeah, yeah that’s very similar, actually, to my experience too. I was pre-med and was like, okay gotta do a gap year trying to find stuff and you know whatever opens the door. My journey went a different way too, where I ultimately realized that medicine was not my path, but I had an advisor that called taking a year after college a ‘discernment year’ and I really liked that rather than you know the term ‘gap year’ or something else because it’s a very full year, but that is something that you know, doing that active discernment is really nice to find out what you are really called towards.
Q: So can you tell me some more about what you were doing in your service during your BSVM year?
MC: I was in the Richmond, Virginia site, and my placement was at Richmond Community Hospital and I was a volunteer patient liaison on the inpatient floor. So basically my role consisted of being a compassionate presence, and I worked with the nursing staff and patient advocacy in case management to kind of provide this extra care of support for the patients on the floor.
And that took shape in many ways, so I would frequently round to visit the patients and kind of just go in and talk to them to see how their day is going, see how they’re feeling about their care, and their medical conditions, and I would organize different events for the patients.
So I got to do a lot of fun things that I called on my RA experience in college for. So it was a lot of fun to tie in those experiences. And I did some art, I played some music with the patients because I had a ukulele. Because my volunteer year was the second year that BSVM was in Virginia, there was still a lot of like adaptability with my role, and I was able to make it fit my personality and kind of meld it around like my skills and talents. So I was able to really use my creativity and wanting to connect with patients to make that a central piece of my role. And it’s really cool to get to know the patients.
Q: What is maybe one thing that put you outside of your comfort zone and then how did you become comfortable with that?
MC: I will say something that was outside of my comfort zone – kind of coming into this new role, I think it is very easy to get overwhelmed because it was something that I had to adapt to and learn how to mold the role towards me. I had to figure that out, and that was very difficult in the beginning because I would go into a patient room and I would just be like– I don’t really have necessarily like a structured thing to do, and just kind of going in and sitting in the patient’s room and just talking, it’s much more difficult than you realize. Especially if the patient isn’t necessarily the most verbal, so being present with the patients in ways for longer periods of time, and being okay with that uncomfortability of just sitting there in silence was definitely something that I needed to learn to get better at and definitely put me outside of my comfort zone initially in the beginning. But then I just learned to kind of get comfortable with it and being okay sitting in silence for like 30 minutes with the patient whether or not it’s like we’re watching tv together or we’re painting or doing something, or just like sitting and kind of taking in the time. And I think those moments– even if they seem boring– were the most meaningful moments in my role, and things that I appreciate having the chance to slow down and the opportunity to just be with a person for a prolonged period of time.
PH: Yeah that ministry of presence that is really kind of it’s difficult to learn. I get asked a lot, ‘what was one of the most difficult things during your year?’, and that’s one of the things I bring up a lot too — that journey from doing to being. Where we had to have a conversation in my community because a couple of us hated the question, ‘what did you do today?’ when we were at dinner because we were like, well, sometimes it wasn’t necessarily doing a lot, it was just being with people, and so we had a conversation – let’s not ask each other that question anymore. We’ll ask about our days or like, ‘how was your day?’ just to reframe the question, because being with people takes a lot of energy too, to learn how to be a compassionate presence. But it is a great skill that I’m very glad I learned, and I’m sure that is going to help you a lot in your practice as a physician as well.
MC: Oh yeah, being a compassionate presence is pretty important I think.
PH: When you were saying that experience of being comfortable with the silence, it just reminded me of a story of when I had to do that as well, like I kept trying to make conversation with the patient and eventually was just like, I need to be silent and sit and color with her. And then that did open up the conversation, and she became one of the patients that I was closest with on the floor when she came in every week. But that meant being really uncomfortable for those first 20 minutes of just sitting and coloring in silence.
Q: Can you tell us about some other time of a specific moment when you saw God’s presence in your service?
MC: There’s this one patient that was there since I started my service, like probably in August / September of my service year. The interesting thing about the inpatient floor is that some of the patients were there for a prolonged period of time. It’s usually supposed to be an acute thing where a patient’s there for a couple of days, and a lot of the patients were, but some of the patients at the hospital were there for prolonged periods of times — weeks to months, some over a year–because of complex processes involving insurance and power of medical care, and so it complicated how the patient was gonna be eventually transferred to the next medical facility, or ultimately to determine where the next best place is for there to be their medical care.
So there was this one patient that was there for a very prolonged period of time — he was actually there before I started, and the previous volunteer, Chris, got to know this patient pretty well. And when I started, he was there for about six months into my own service year. At first when I went into his room, he was very cold to me the first day. And I think it’s because I was trying to be overly helpful with him. Like I would talk to him, I would say so much, I’m like, ‘I could do this for you’, ‘I could like help you open your soda’, and stuff like that, and he didn’t really want– he wanted to be as independent as possible. And so I remember him yelling at me, and he apologized. But, I think he was right to be upset because I just came into his space and just was trying to be overly helpful. But – I didn’t necessarily realize in the moment what I was doing. And as I spent more time with him, he opened up to me.
I remember when we had the carnival, we brought in a balloon, and he was like, ‘what’s going on’ because we got a helium tank and then we gave him this stuffed animal, and he’s like, ‘what are you guys doing’, and he was just really happy that we came by and brought him some stuff. And as I’m talking about him, I remember stories that I had. I think earlier that year, before the carnival– and I think this answers your question about seeing God’s presence a little bit better and more succinctly– I went in with the ukulele into his room to play music for him, and as I was playing music, I wasn’t sure how he would– if he was gonna like the music or whatever. But as I was playing, he didn’t know the songs, but he started humming along and it was very beautiful. It was a very beautiful moment that I was able to have with him because I never heard him sing before, and he smiled as we were singing, and he said, ‘oh I did such a good job’ (even though I know he was lying, I’m not that great of a singer). But it was a very nice thing to see that side of him, and him also sharing in the music with me. I think it was a very cool thing to experience with someone. And I hope that it was able to give him a little bit of joy as opposed to just like the tv being on all the time and all that kind of stuff. But I think that answered your question in a very long about way, as I typically answer questions like that.
PH: Oh no, I loved it. It was really beautiful. There are so many moments of God’s presence, and like you said at the beginning, that we reflect on it every two weeks – we have these Ministry Reflection Questions or ‘MRQs’ where we talk about where we are seeing God’s presence. So there’s a lot of those moments, and that’s just such a beautiful moment of that music, and it definitely brought him joy, I’m sure.
Q: What is one piece of advice that you would give to yourself at the beginning of your service year? Especially because you have this unique experience where part of your service year was at the beginning of this pandemic time that we’re in, what advice would you give for those who are about to start a service year or are discerning it right now?
MC: Yeah so I think it’s definitely a challenge now with a lot of things being socially distant or virtual, but I think a good general piece of advice I kind of wish I told myself before starting the service year is just – lean into everything, honestly.
Because of Covid, my service year was cut short and I had to– for family reasons– travel back to my hometown to be with family, and so one thing I really wish was that because that time was cut short, I just wish I did more. And I feel like everyone wishes that they can do more, and it’s like, you can’t do everything, and self-care is important, so you shouldn’t just like go off and try to do everything; it’s important to take care of yourself and just rest. But I think it’s very easy to get into the habit of– just get into habits. I am a creature of habit, even if I don’t think about it, it’s very comfortable to fall into comfortability, and you don’t have to always be in an uncomfortable state, but I think it’s nice to kind of shake things up a little bit, because it keeps you alive. It reminds you of our humanity and that we all only have not that much time, and we just gotta find time to enjoy the things around us. And I think if you’re like– not that you always have to constantly think about that– but I think if you’re able to have a little reminder, it helps with being present. It allows you to be present a little bit more with everything that you do, whether it’s with your community members or with the people at your service site, or your family or your friends or whoever. And that’s super important and I think that’s a piece of advice that’s important to remind yourself during your service year and then just for life in general, because who knows what’s going to happen.
Watch the full interview on the link above!