Be a Health Angel and Give Back

Here are some ways you can help make the world better—and healthier—this holiday season and beyond.

A brother and sister in their winter coats, boots and hats are making angels in the snow.

Lift your spirits by taking a health-minded approach to doing good deeds.

‘Tis the season to be generous. And what better cause to give to than good health? There are many healthful ways to make a difference—from reading to children at the hospital to sharing medical information with scientists to donating blood and more. Some acts of kindness listed below are relatively simple, while others take more thought and commitment.

No matter which way you choose to help others, being a giver means you’ll also receive something unexpected in return. Psychological studies show that giving is good for your own well-being, too, by reducing your body’s stress (cortisol) levels.

So, as the hustle and bustle of the holidays approaches, consider the following ways to give of yourself. Your efforts could help comfort people in need, improve treatment options for generations to come, or even save lives.

Ways to give:

1.  Volunteer your time

The kindness of volunteers can make hospital stays easier for patients and their families. For instance, at Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital, volunteers are needed to read to children receiving hospital care, play games with patients’ siblings in waiting areas and work in the hospital gift shop. 

At Smilow Cancer Hospital and the Smilow Care Centers, volunteers are also needed to greet and escort patients or even play piano in the hospital lobby. Volunteers who are certified practitioners of Reiki, a hands-on energy healing technique, also give their time and services to cancer patients. 

For more information and for a listing of current volunteer opportunities at Yale New Haven and Smilow, contact Volunteer Services at 203-688-2297. You can also check out hospital websites for volunteer opportunities near you.

2. Contribute your medical records and test samples

Want to help scientists make medical breakthroughs? Here’s something you can do that takes almost no effort at all: Allow your electronic medical records and leftover blood or tissue samples from testing to be available to researchers.

“At Yale, scientists can use information from medical records and blood or tissue samples for research, unless patients opt out,” says Robert Sherwin, MD, director of the Yale Center for Clinical Investigation and a professor of endocrinology at Yale School of Medicine. “This type of information is important to help us better understand diseases and develop new treatments that can benefit so many people.”

The information scientists glean from medical information helps them to develop new tests or drugs to fight disease. It can even help them learn more about diseases that are passed down through families. 

Know that the information collected from medical records and samples does not affect or change your care, and your privacy is protected. 

To learn more about how donated medical records and samples can help scientists, visit yalestudies.org. If you’re interested in participating, all you have to do is become a Yale Medicine patient—your electronic records will then become available for research if you don't opt out. (You can stop sharing information at any time by emailing optout@yale.edu or calling 877-978-8343.)

3. Donate blood

The American Red Cross needs donations year-round and the need can be great during the holiday season. (Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s are among the most deadly holidays for traffic accidents, according to research from the Insurance Information Institute.)

You can decide to donate whole blood, platelets, plasma or power red. The kind of donation you make determines how frequently you can give in coming months and years. For more details or to locate a blood drive near you, contact the Red Cross by visiting redcrossblood.org or calling 1-800-RED-CROSS. They’ll first evaluate your eligibility, which is gauged by your health. 

A blood drive is scheduled at Yale New Haven Hospital, at 20 York St., on Dec. 19 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Walk-ins are welcome.

4. Recycle Rx medications

Properly disposing of prescription medications is a good deed that can go a long way toward making sure drugs like opioids don’t accidentally fall into the wrong hands, explains Yale Medicine's David Fiellin, MD, an addiction medicine expert and a professor of medicine, emergency medicine and public health at Yale School of Medicine. Remove drugs you no longer need from your medicine cabinet but avoid throwing them in the garbage or flushing them down the toilet, which can pollute aquifers. Instead, bring them to an authorized dropbox—they’re conveniently located at police departments, pharmacies and health centers. Search online for approved drug take-back locations near you. 

5. Join a clinical trial

Clinical trials are research studies that help doctors test new drugs; the results may also inform strategies for disease prevention, diagnosis, or treatment. You don’t have to be sick to participate in a clinical trial. “Many trials need healthy volunteers to provide information that can be compared to people who have a condition or disease,” says Dr. Sherwin. “Clinical trials are the only way to find out if new treatments are safe and effective. When people participate in a clinical trial today, they're helping the patients of tomorrow."

Clinical trials can take many forms. Some require a simple blood donation for researchers to analyze. Others involve undergoing a new medical or surgical treatment. There are also trials that measure how lifestyle changes affect your health. Sometimes, researchers test new medications or want to find out if a medication that’s approved for one kind of disease will work for a completely different medical condition. Visit yalestudies.org to learn more about their clinical research and search available trials for which you may be eligible. If you are a patient, you can also find clinical trials by signing up for MyChart and clicking the “research” tab.

6. Become a living organ donor

Surgeons from Yale Medicine’s and Yale New Haven Hospital’s Center for Living Organ Donors are recruiting people to help expand a pioneering program that connects living donors, who are willing to donate a kidney or a part of their liver, with recipients in need. (Thanks to innovative surgeries such as split-liver transplants, a donated section of your liver can sometimes help two or more recipients.)

“There is a lot of good in people,” says Sanjay Kulkarni, MD, medical director of the Center for Living Organ Donors. “We see people come forward who don't know a recipient, like a co-worker or somebody in their church group, very well. In many cases all they need is more information about the procedure before they make the decision to donate.” 

If you’d like to donate a kidney but your blood type doesn’t match your recipient’s, all is not lost. You can be part of an “exchange,” which means your and your recipient’s names are entered into a computer program that returns a list of multiple donors and recipients, helping to save many lives.  Today, Yale has more than 1,000 people on its waiting list for a kidney. 

Ways not to give:

Sometimes your heart may be in the right place, and you might think you’re helping when you’re actually not. Here are some things you should know and advice on how to do your good deed, only better.

1. Avoid giving cash—try gift cards instead

"Many people feel uncomfortable about giving money to people experiencing homelessness or those panhandling on the street," says David Rosenthal, MD, a primary care physician and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine who is also the medical director of the Homeless Patient Aligned Care Team for the VA Connecticut Healthcare System. "A better bet: Hand out $5 gift cards to nearby coffee shops, restaurants or grocery stores. Recipients can then buy food, beverages or self-care items they need."

2. Don’t donate damaged eye-wear

Donating your old prescription eyeglasses and sunglasses feels better than throwing them away. But, only 7 percent are usable, according to a study in Optometry and Vision Science

When giving used eye-wear, make sure they have no scratches or damage, which makes them unusable. To donate yours and bestow the gift of sight, contact your local service organization (Lions Clubs International, for example).

3. Think twice before baking cookies or giving wine

You want to give a token of appreciation to a co-worker, hairdresser or acquaintance. But when you don’t know someone well, you might not know if they have a nut or dairy allergy, addiction or other medical issue (such as diabetes or Celiac disease) that prevents them from consuming certain foods or alcohol. Stick to solutions that won't cause awkwardness such as inexpensive earbuds for exercising, a water bottle for good hydration or a fidget spinner that may relieve stress.

All of these ideas may just help you earn your health halo this (or any) time of year.