Wednesday, June 04, 2014

8 Years, 819 Hours: Reflections on Volunteering at Georgetown University Hospital


Due to some life and schedule changes, today was my last day (for the foreseeable future) of volunteering with cancer patients at Georgetown University Hospital. When I signed out from my volunteer shift, I saw that I have volunteered more than 819 hours over the last 8 years.

Volunteering at the hospital every Wednesday morning has been a huge part of my life and my routine over the past 8 years. I’ve arranged my work and personal life around this commitment, and on the weeks when I was unable to volunteer (traveling, unmovable professional commitments, being sick – I can’t be around cancer patients if I have a cold or other illness), I felt a bit unmoored. Volunteering became a consistent, grounding touchstone.

The actual tasks of volunteering have been pretty simple: make coffee, hand out drinks and crackers and sandwiches, organize the waiting room, help with paperwork, and, most importantly, visit with patients. The tasks have been simple; the rewards of volunteering have been profound. Many of my friends have heard me say that it is the highlight of my week. Why? Perhaps sharing some individual stories will help paint the picture of what this has meant to me:

  • A patient I befriended was a master crocheter. I brought in my own crocheting projects, and we would sit together, crafting and talking. She showed me the shirts and skirts and even a wedding gown that she had crocheted, and we shared stories about our lives. She also made beautiful folded paper swans for me and my nieces.
  • A woman who lived on a farm with her children and grandchildren brought in fresh produce from her garden to share with those who cared for her at the hospital. She called everyone “baby.” I can hear her now: “Hey, baby. How you doing?”
  • One couple told me all about their grandchildren, and I shared stories of my nieces. Though the wife was sometimes in intense pain, they always greeted me and the nurses and staff with a smile. Of all the patients at the hospital, I knew them the longest.
  • I got to know a patient who was an avid sailor who took his kids out of school so they could sail around the globe as a family. We often talked about politics, and when we really got into it, his blood pressure always became elevated! We had to limit our talks to brief intervals so that his pressure would stay even.
  • A couple that came in every week was a model of kindness, devotion, and faith. Though from a different religious tradition than mine, we spent many hours talking about God and commitment to a faith community. We shared a lot of laughter, and some tears. I referred to the wife as “my angel.”
  • I once went out on a date with a cute guy I met on He said “you look familiar to me.” He was a patient at the hospital. We only went out once; a few weeks after our date, his cancer returned, with a vengeance. I was at his bedside on the day he died.
  • A single dad would sometimes bring in his young daughter, who was a ray of light and her father’s pride and joy. Sometimes I would bring her crayons, and we would sit and color together. She colored a sweet holiday card for me that had its place on the front of my refrigerator for many years.

While many of these stories sound “heavy,” there are so many light, fun moments at the hospital. The patients and I have talked about everything under the sun: movies, TV, current events, fashion, our families, our friends, and lots of little things that have made us smile. I’ve found that the patients don’t necessarily want to talk about their disease; they do that all the time. A simple “hey, how is that book?” or “anything interesting in your newspaper today?” can lead to some great conversations that take patients’ minds off of what they are going through, even for a little while.

The staff and volunteers have been a source of connection and joy, as well. We’ve celebrated birthdays, weddings, and new babies. We’ve eaten way too many cookies and candies and snacks brought in by grateful patients. We’ve said goodbye as staff have moved on to new jobs or new towns. When I told another volunteer I would be vacationing in Tahiti, she said that she had family there, of all places, and she connected me with them – they were spectacular hosts for two days. A big world made small.

Many of the patients I’ve met over the years have beaten their cancer and stopped coming in to the hospital. The hospital is the only place where I can genuinely say, “Goodbye, and I hope I never see you again.” Other patients have not been so lucky. They continue to come in for their chemotherapy, or they have died, and their faces, words, and spirits have stayed with me.

Why has volunteering at the hospital been the highlight of my week for so long? All the stories above, and more. Yes, it puts my own problems in perspective. Yes, it has been moving, and cathartic, and sometimes fun. Yes, it feels good – great, in fact – to do a little something to lighten someone else’s load. But really, in a nutshell, it has been the one time of the week when it is totally, completely, 100% Not. About. Me. There’s a lot to be said for that.

I have volunteered in honor of my mother, who died of leukemia in 1994. We talked about her illness, we celebrated her ups and worried about her downs. Even so, I wish I had done more to help her when she was sick; I wish I’d been more present for her. (Although my father has told me many times that she wanted me to be living and enjoying my own life back then, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, in college and working my first jobs. She didn’t want me to be focused on her. But still, I reflect back and think “I could have done more.”) I hope she would be proud of my volunteer service. I know she would have loved meeting some of the extraordinary people that I have met at the hospital. I miss her so much, and getting to know these patients has helped me understand her more deeply.

If you have the opportunity to volunteer somewhere on an ongoing basis, long term, I urge you to do it. Yes, the “one shot deal” volunteer projects are fun, feel good, and do help those in need. But volunteering somewhere consistently for an extended period of time creates a deep, profound connection and a meaningful shift in yourself. I know it is not feasible for everyone’s life and schedule and circumstance. I am grateful that it could work for my life for these past 8 years. Hopefully, someday I’ll return to the hospital to continue my own commitment. Until then, I have a treasure trove of memories and experiences. I hope that when some patients and staff see a coffee cup, a package of graham crackers, a plastic-wrapped sandwich, or a stray magazine in the waiting room, and they will think of our talks, and smile.