The BinaryBiker is a Candy Striper

Today was my first shift as a volunteer at the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh.

I’ve been wanting to give back for a while now.  I’ve struggled with cancer awareness and activism, because it always made me feel a little . . . vain.  It makes me feel self-conscious.  I don’t want to be one of those guys who stands from the mountaintop and demands that people pay attention to me because I had cancer.

I just want to help, and give back.

With that in mind, I reached out to the volunteer coordinator at UPMC a couple of months ago and discussed my options for volunteering in the cancer ward at the hospital.  I remembered from my multiple stays in the hospital during my treatments the volunteers on the floor.  I feel sorry for them now – I was a terrible patient and barked at everyone.  Even though I was often grumpy, I do remember them always smiling, and I was appreciative that there were people on the floor who didn’t want to poke me, prod me, or give / take fluids from me.

The volunteers were silent heroes.  A pleasant face in my memories of the time that were awash in a sea of negative emotions.  They didn’t ask for recognition.  They didn’t do it for kudos, respect, or attention.  They were just there.  Because they cared.  That’s what I wanted to do.

I realized that since I work contracts now, and set my own schedule, I had no barriers any longer.  I could just start volunteering; the only thing holding me back was me.  And so, I reached out to UPMC.  It has been an amazingly positive and pleasant experience.  The volunteer staff at UPMC has welcomed me with open arms and have made me feel a part of the team.  In truth, they were surprised by me.

Apparently, nearly all of the volunteers at the hospital are college kids getting college credit for volunteering.  The UPMC staff was surprised by an “adult volunteer,” especially one who is a cancer survivor himself.  I found out that there are very few people who actually volunteer at the cancer ward.

And that’s just sad.  Cancer fighters are some of the most amazing people in the world.

While I can’t talk about the amazing people I met today, I can detail out a few of my thoughts and observations from my first volunteer experience today:

  • I was nervous when I arrived.  I am, by nature, an introvert and I knew I was going to be dealing with and talking with many people, almost all of them cancer fighters.  I was going to have to be on my A / extrovert game.
  • I started by simply going room-to-room introducing myself.  I refilled ice cups and water pitchers.  I smiled, and allowed myself to make minor chit-chat, looking for an ice-breaker.
  • Some patients were just tired, but they all smiled when I came in, even if they didn’t really want another body in their room.  This is the amazing fortitude that I so admire in cancer patients.  They adjust to a life of constant interruptions, loss of privacy, and a routine punctuated by beeping monitors – and they do it with a smile.  Such amazing strength.
  • I serviced over 20 rooms, and made connections with a half-dozen patients.  I was not expecting that.  Once the patient found out I was a cancer survivor myself, they opened up and we just chatted for minutes at a time before I was shooed out by a nurse needing access to the patient.  We talked life, philosophy, politics, cancer, motorcycles, taste buds – you name it.
  • I learned about an awesome aquarium in Columbus, OH and a real, legit, biker bar in Pittsburgh.  I learned of towns in West Virginia, places in Idaho, and shared memories of South Carolina with patients.
  • I must have washed my hands a hundred times in the four hours I was volunteering.  Wash before you go in, wash when you leave.  Some rooms require masks, gloves, and gowns.  Cleanliness is THE FOCUS of everyone on the floor.  It’s easy to see how hard it is to follow 100% of the time and how easy it could be to forget.  I am required to wash as I go in and as I leave.  If I don mask, gloves, and gown, they must be discarded in the room before I leave it.  It is ingrained in the staff, and they follow it religiously, and I was seriously impressed by their diligence.
  • The nursing staff was very welcoming and friendly; they welcomed me and were, frankly, not sure what to task me with.  All other volunteers are college students who excel at keeping supplies present, gowns available, gloves ready, and things of that nature.  Of course, I did those tasks as well, but I was left to my own devices – and I used that time to meet and talk with the patients.

I had a very positive experience today, and I can’t wait to do it again.   Selfishly, I really loved the feeling of giving back, of just being there for these amazing patients living life more fully every day than most of us do in a week.  I was reminded again how precious life is and what is important in life.  Live every day, day-to-day, and squeeze as much from each day as you can.

If you don’t volunteer, please consider doing so.  Consider giving a couple of hours a week to a local charity, hospital, or other charitable organization.  It makes a difference.  A big one.

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One Response to “The BinaryBiker is a Candy Striper”

  1. I really enjoyed this blog update tonight and wanted to say thanks for sharing your reflections of your first day and for volunteering your time. I’m sure with your insight, thoughtfulness, first-hand experience, and humour, the patients you encounter are going to have similar stories of your time with them to share with their friends. Awesome!

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