Sharing personal journeys, SCI volunteers bond with patients
Written by Rebecca Budde • Photography by Jason Johnson
A friendly face can make all the difference to someone coming in for cancer treatment. Many of Simmons Cancer Institute’s (SCI) patients travel from outside the Springfield area, and when they come in for the first time, a greeting and a smile add reassurance in an unfamiliar place.
"When some people walk in, they have a lost, stunned look on their faces," says volunteer Sally Brackney. "But on the way out they say to us, ‘We’ll see you next time’ or ‘I’m not coming back for six months.’ And we hope that they got some sort of good news. Being here to help them is rewarding." Brackney is one of about 40 people who volunteer at the front desk of SCI.
The volunteers are a very special group of dedicated individuals, who together share a common bond: playing a part in helping people through their cancer journey. "With our volunteers, it’s more than greeting or providing directions to patients; it’s making sure that the time patients spend at SCI is as positive as it can be," says Cindy Davidsmeyer, director of community support at SCI. The volunteers’ job ranges from helping people find clinics, assisting with wigs or just listening to a patient or caregiver who wants to talk.
Each of the volunteers has a specific motivation for coming in to SCI for their four-hour shift, all of them relating in some way to the role of cancer in their lives.
Beverly Collins was involved with the Denim & Diamonds fundraiser as SCI was being built, and she eagerly anticipated its opening. "My mother and father and several friends have passed from cancer," Collins says. "One friend shared the same birthdate with me, so it was really hard when she passed because she was my age. I knew I wanted to volunteer here because of them."
Other volunteers have themselves been diagnosed with cancer and undergone treatment, which provides a valuable perspective that they can offer to patients. "Once I went through my treatment, I thought, it’s the least I can do," says Sally Brackney, a three-year survivor of vocal cord cancer. "I like it when patients ask for Dr. Robbins or Dr. [Krishna] Rao," she says. "I say, ‘Oh, he’s my doctor, too.’ And they say, ‘You had cancer?’ I answer, ‘Yes!’ And I want them to know I’m there with them."
"There’s so much cancer in my family that I know how important a positive attitude is to the patients," volunteer Rose Marie Bosco says. "When they come in and are dejected about a diagnosis, we can tell them that things can get better. I even share that I’m a cancer survivor when it helps."
Sometimes it’s the caregivers, not the patients, who spend more time with the volunteers as they wait while their loved one is in the infusion room or seeing a physician. "Spouses and family members will come up to the desk and talk with us," says volunteer Beverly Collins. "It’s fun to talk and meet with different people."
Many patients travel to SCI from other towns, and their unfamiliarity with the area add to an already tense feeling. Davidsmeyer recalls a situation where a couple who had driven several hours for an appointment experienced car trouble in SCI’s parking lot. The volunteers called a tow truck, made sure the couple had transportation to the repair shop and explained the situation so that repairs were made and they could be safely on their way home later that day. "They took the stress out of a situation that causes anxiety even when there isn’t a cancer diagnosis involved," Davidsmeyer says.
Hair loss is a common side effect of cancer treatment, and along with patient navigator Katherine Howerter, the volunteers are trained to help women in the wig salon. Located on the main floor of SCI, the room holds a variety of top quality wigs in all lengths, styles and colors. "When the ladies come in needing a wig, it’s pretty gratifying to help them," says volunteer and former SIU employee Sally Godbey.
"They’re told that they’re going to lose all their hair, and that has to be so hard to comprehend when you first come in here. But we can help them feel better in that transition," says Kathy Grubb, who worked with Godbey at SIU for 33 years. The two say they volunteer at SCI every Tuesday afternoon as a way to give back to the School.
Though their smiles and friendliness put people a little more at ease, the volunteers admit that they’ve also had some high and low emotional moments. "One day a gentleman came to the clinic and seemed to be very edgy, angry," Brackney recalls. "Then he went over to the piano that is in the lobby and began to play the most beautiful classical music I’ve ever heard. He seemed to be calmed down and went back to see the doctor. As he left the building, he said to us, ‘Well, I won’t be back; it’s terminal.’ That was hard. We never saw him again. I’ve never seen such raw emotion."
But they see the happy moments as well. When patients have their last chemotherapy treatment, the staff holds a graduation celebration. Volunteer Phyllis Eubanks recalls celebrating at a graduation for a friend. "Two of her friends from work brought balloons, flowers and cookies, and they had a party for her," says Eubanks. "She even wore a bright blue wig." The volunteers are there to congratulate the patients as they complete this milestone.
"Our patients receive the best possible support from these dedicated volunteers when they walk through the doors," Davidsmeyer says. "It comes from someone who can identify with them because they too, understand what it’s like to be touched by cancer.