“I’ll volunteer until the day I can’t.”
Bob Bos, one of approximately 70 volunteers at the West Michigan Cancer Center in Kalamazoo, says these words with emphasis. The Vietnam veteran with a steady, caring gaze has been on the front lines of the cancer battlefield. He lost his wife to cancer and understands how a smile and kind word carry great weight in providing comfort.
As a security volunteer at the center, Bos is one of the first faces that patients and their loved ones see as they approach the building. Bos greets people, assists them with wheelchairs, escorts them to the correct floors and provides anything else they might need — even a hug. And he gives out many hugs.
He says he asked for this particular volunteer position for a reason: “Because when you’re coming across that parking lot for the first time, I’ve seen so many tears come down gals’ or guys’ cheeks, knowing that they’re entering in for the first time the cancer center. And the first face they see is someone that is going to say, ‘Good morning. How we doing today? Can I help in any way?’”
Samantha Carlson, director of social services at the cancer center, believes that the center’s volunteers are priceless. Every patient who walks through its doors has been traumatized, she says, whether they are coming to find out if they have cancer, if they remain a survivor or if cancer has recurred. The volunteers help alleviate that stress. Carlson believes they amplify the staff’s ability to serve patients.
“They contribute humanity and care that we cannot do as clinicians or staff,” Carlson says. “Even though we feel the same empathy, having walked the walk — a lot of them are survivors or caregivers — that’s super-important.”
On Thursday mornings, people entering the cancer center receive a heartfelt greeting from volunteer Alan Sarver. A cancer survivor, Sarver knows the emotions associated with a cancer diagnosis: fear, worry, apprehension. When Sarver received treatment at the center, he remembers, the staff and volunteers put him at ease and made him feel welcomed. That stirred his soul to provide the same support to others.
“If I can smile and say good morning to somebody, I’ve done something at least,” Sarver says.
Sitting at the table next to Bos and Sarver, coffee cart volunteer Paul Eddy nods in agreement. When fighting his own cancer battle, Eddy says, two people stood out on his first day at the center: a knowledgeable oncology nurse and the friendly greeter at the front door.
“I remember — I think it was you, Bob — at the front door saying ‘good morning’ and with this big smile,” Eddy says. That simple act grounded him, Eddy says, and in those four seconds conveyed that these were real people who cared.
Eddy now provides encouragement by offering coffee, cookies, crackers, a warm smile and willingness to listen. His late father-in-law, Bob Elwell, also volunteered at the center for many years. Eddy proudly points at the many decorative pins that came from Elwell that now adorn Eddy’s volunteer vest. He has been pushing the cart for only about two months and admits to feeling nervous his first few days.
“I had no idea what to say to folks or what to do,” Eddy says.
Now Eddy offers two words to those considering a volunteer position: “Be bold.” Do that even if it falls outside of your comfort zone, he advises. Take action, step in and say, “Use me. I’m here.”
In Eddy’s case, Marilyn Schutter, a 19-year coffee cart volunteer, showed him the ropes. And who better to do so? Schutter started the center’s coffee cart program nearly 20 years ago when her daughter was diagnosed with cancer and underwent treatment in Ann Arbor. One day as they waited, a man came by and offered cookies and conversation. Schutter was impressed by such a considerate gesture, and after her daughter received a clean bill of health, Schutter called the West Michigan Cancer Center to see if they needed help. They did, but in the office.
A retired middle school secretary, Schutter had had enough of paperwork. She wanted to be on the floor, but the volunteer program didn’t yet exist, so Schutter and another woman took action, purchasing Famous Amos cookies, tracking down a cart and rolling up their sleeves. Those actions were infectious.
“I have three kids and they all like to volunteer for things and help people,” Schutter says, “and hopefully that will go down to your grandchildren and maybe your great-grandchildren. It isn’t something that you tell them to do, but maybe they want to do it because there’s joy in it.”
People gifted in the arts also donate their time at the cancer center. In 2012, a friend who played the piano at the center approached Susan Noble about also playing piano there. Noble, whose husband had had cancer 30 years before, jumped at the chance.
“It’s a joy to me to help somebody else,” Noble says. “That’s why I do it.”
Noble often plays old music and military tunes. For the older patients, it resurrects memories. When Noble takes a break, they reminisce about “old music and old times.” The center needs more piano players, Noble says, adding that music brings comfort to the patients.
Evelyn Greathouse, a local veterinarian and pastel artist who also volunteers at the center, says Noble’s music lightens the atmosphere in the room. “It almost sounds like you are at a USO joint,” Greathouse says, smiling.
Greathouse, a cancer survivor, says when she was receiving treatment at the cancer center, she drew for three hours while hooked to an IV line. That gave her an idea: Maybe others would like to watch her draw. Every Wednesday she sets up her easel in the lobby.
“Just to look these people in the face and acknowledge them as human beings, you give them so much,” she says. “And it’s not as scary as (you) might anticipate — doom and gloom and all that stuff. It’s not that way. We’re all in this together, and I think it increases your own humanity.”
The first thing you notice about Debra Chesney, volunteer coordinator at the WMCC, is her warm smile and affable nature. After speaking with her colleagues, you discover she has another gift: juggling (tasks, that is). Orchestrating the volunteer program means interviewing potential volunteers, coordinating background checks and interviews, training, keeping volunteers updated on annual compliance, providing ongoing communication of process changes at the institution, coordinating the daily schedule of more than a dozen volunteers on-site or in the community, assisting with program coordination and networking in the community. Oh, yeah, and making sure 30-plus pots of coffee get brewed each day.
“Deb has an amazing skill set of organization, people skills, and empathy that is hard to find,” Carlson says.
For all that Chesney gives, she receives much more in return, she says. The volunteers at the WMCC have helped her grow personally, she says, due to their commitment, their stories and how they handle life’s problems.
“Volunteers inspire me to be a better person,” Chesney says, “to take time for others in need that may only need a few minutes of encouragement. When you work in a health-care setting, you find out that life can be short, so we need to make sure we are taking time for people. My volunteers have inspired me in this area.”
Chesney also interacts with patients and their families. A particular patient stands out in her mind. While working the new host volunteer position in the infusion area, Chesney was pushing a cart filled with magazines. Chesney offered them to a man in his 50s. He declined — until his eye caught the sports magazines. Before Chesney knew it, the patient opened up, talking about never expecting this to happen and how he still loved to watch and play sports.
“Cancer had taken a toll on his body but not his spirit,” she says. “He still enjoyed watching sports and participating when able. I was amazed at his will to fight his cancer and still enjoy what he loved to do.”
Between 60 and 70 percent of WMCC volunteers have been patients at the center or have a loved one who was a patient there.
Before being sent onto the floor, every new volunteer receives four hours of training, which includes topics such as HIPAA (the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and its patient confidentiality requirements, infection control, and what cancer patients experience. Ongoing training occurs quarterly. The center brings in speakers on subjects such as grief and veterans’ services in sessions that are open to both volunteers and patients.
Seeing so many people come through the doors isn’t always easy for volunteers, Chesney says, but the volunteers bring incredible joy to the patients.
“Training is quite intense,” Chesney says. “They need to be prepared for what they see when they go out on the floor, and that can be scary for some. We have volunteer shadows (for new volunteers). That has helped a lot to make them feel comfortable and know, ‘I can do this.’”
Bos, a volunteer since 2009, provides a story that sheds light on the emotionally intense experiences volunteers encounter. It also highlights the volunteer program’s significance. One day Bos witnessed a woman get out of her car in the parking lot and start weeping. The woman’s husband wrapped his arms around her. Bos approached them and asked if he might help in some way. The man explained that his wife had Stage 4 cancer. This was their first time coming to the cancer center, and Bos sensed their immediate need.
“‘You need a hug to let you know that I’m here for you,’” Bos says he told them, “‘that the center is here for you, that we care about you.’ And she collapsed in my arms,” he says, “put her head on my shoulder and just wept, and she said, ‘Thank you so much.’”
The couple has sent Bos invitations to family sports events and barbecues. Although he declines these invitations, it shows the connectedness that develops between volunteers and patients and their loved ones. Bos regularly receives Christmas cards from families as well.
The program touches the lives of approximately 450 to 650 patients per day. Volunteers served nearly 6,000 hours in the last year. And Chesney doesn’t recruit volunteers — they come to her with dedication that runs so deep they plan activities around their volunteer schedule. Sarver, a retiree, enjoys vacationing with his wife, but he returns by Thursday so he doesn’t miss his shift. In the event that something unexpected arises, another volunteer always steps up, Sarver says.
“The substitute list here is very long,” he says. “If you can’t make it here on your shift, (you) tell Deb, she puts out an email and that thing is filled within the next day or two.”
Lynne Emons, marketing coordinator at the cancer center, finds her job humbling. The volunteers have been through painful situations, she says, yet they return every week. Emons likens their work to “tours of duty.”
“They go over and over, back to this place where they faced a lot of difficulties,” she says. “Somewhere they’ve been able to draw this strength, give others strength to get through this, and it just strikes me.”
In 1994, Emons was a patient herself at the center. She remembers the fear and how she cried for a week, so she recognizes the strength it takes for volunteers to do what they do.
But the volunteers wouldn’t have it any other way, as Bos can attest.
“I guess to sum it up, in a nutshell, I’m here because people should volunteer in some way, somewhere,” Bos says. “I don’t care if it’s the cancer center, the hospital, (or) the local food kitchen over here. It’s amazing how you can touch people’s lives and feel so good inside afterwards.”