A little more than two years ago, I walked into the Volunteer Resources office at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for an interview. The date was March 21, 2012, exactly one year since the death of my grandmother, who had passed away from pancreatic cancer and who was a patient at the hospital.
I had signed up to volunteer as a part of Sloan’s Visible Ink program. After about 10 minutes with the department’s coordinator, it was clear to her that I was better suited to become a visiting volunteer, someone who goes room to room a few hours a week to visit with patients who may be lonely, or without much company. On the surface, the job seems simple: a five minute chat, a check-in. But I can tell you, for me, it’s been life-changing.
For two hours, every Wednesday, for two years, I walked the floors of Sloan Kettering in search of people to talk to. Walking into a cancer patient’s hospital room unannounced can be a daunting challenge. Some people treated me with suspicion. Some with disdain. But the majority of people were relieved to see a smiling face, someone who wasn’t coming in to talk about more tests, someone who wasn’t wheeling them down to surgery, someone who wasn’t bringing bad news.
I met more amazing people than I could ever count. Some may think a person’s cancer diagnosis defines them. Regardless of the treatment or outcome, it becomes a huge part of that person’s (and their family’s) life story. But if you sit with any of them, for any measure of time, you learn that every person is so much more than their struggles or their circumstances.
Because of privacy issues, I can’t tell you much about the people that I met. But I can tell you that they were all amazing. They were retired cops, rocket scientists, wood carvers, clothing designers, Marine Corps wives, mothers, fathers, teachers, firefighters, writers, dog-lovers, cooks. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people in a cancer hospital, but there is also no shortage of life stories. Sometimes I left the hospital so overcome with emotion that I cried for the entire eight-block walk back to my apartment. But I never left Sloan without a sense of hope. These people were doing it—they were challenging cancer to take away the things most precious and important in their lives, challenging cancer to make them feel their absolute worse, challenging cancer to make them despair. And many of them were overcoming it.
On Monday, at Sloan’s 41st Annual Volunteer Recognition Ceremony, one of the speakers shared his reflections on the volunteer experience. He quoted the recently deceased Maya Angelou:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
He was talking about the impact volunteers can make with just small acts of kindness (in 2013, Sloan Kettering volunteers contributed 80,000 hours of service globally), but I think the quote can also be used as an example of the impression Sloan’s patients have left with me. I don’t remember all the conversations. I don’t remember all the words said. But I do remember that my experience volunteering at Sloan has taught me more than I could have ever imagined about the power of hope, the love of family, the resiliency of people.
I thank you, Sloan, for all of these life lessons, and for the opportunity to be so richly immersed in the best of humanity.
If you are interested in becoming a volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, visit this page or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.