Welcome to our newest blog series, “Five Questions With…” In this series, we will highlight the unsung heroes that make healthcare work. From guest services to the phlebotomist, the pet therapy volunteer, and the environmental services workers. These individuals enhance our experiences when we are getting care and highlight human connection and support. Thank you for all you do!
Today, we feature Gini, a Penn Medicine Radiation Oncology Volunteer Ambassador and cancer survivor. Thank you for all you do!
What do you do to support patients and their caregivers?
On April 3, 2017, I was operated on for tonsil cancer. The care of my medical team, the nurses in the hospital, my social worker, and my nurse navigator helped make my stay a positive experience for myself and my family. Because of the outstanding care I received, my husband and I decided to pay it forward by volunteering. We both participate in the Head & Neck Cancer Support Group at PCAM, the Radiation Oncology Alumni Group, and the Radiation Patient & Family Advisory Council at Penn Medicine. When we were asked if we would consider becoming volunteers, we did not hesitate.
As a volunteer in Radiation Oncology, I introduce myself to patients, as an icebreaker, saying,”I sat in the same seat as you, because I am recovering from cancer”. Some patients want to talk about their experience and want to hear about my cancer story, while others want to know what kind of side effects I experienced. Head and Neck cancer patients often ask if I had eating and food issues similar to what they are experiencing from radiation. I tell them that not everyone’s cancer is the same and not everyone’s radiation experiences are the same. As a volunteer, I chat about almost everything from tv programs, to travel and books, helping patients escape from the seriousness of their illness through conversation. Some patients just want a compassionate ear, as they talk about how they are feeling. I’ve also shared prayer on request. I am a good listener and have an empathetic heart, skills that increased during my own journey with cancer.
Is there one particular story that sticks out in your mind about a patient or caregiver that you can share?
I have two stories. The first story occurred before I became an ambassador, but is probably the bridge that led me to volunteering and was the main reason why I wanted to give back to the hospital. At my first post-op appointment, I was in the waiting room with my daughter and husband. I was not a pretty sight, since I had a gastric feeding tube and my still healing trach, which gave me a voice that sounded like that of Daisy Duck. A gentleman sitting across from us asked my daughter what kind of cancer I had. She told him, “tonsil cancer”, at which he quietly said, “me, too”. He then asked what my prognosis was, and my daughter replied, “As good as mine!” At this point, he started crying. In all my post-surgical glory, I stood up and hugged him, quacking in my trach-caused, Daisy Duck voice, “You are in the right place. It will be okay”. He was told by his prior physician that his cancer was inoperable, since it wrapped around his carotid artery, and was given a poor prognosis. He was in the Dr’s office in hopes of a second chance. I saw him about a month after his surgery and he called me his angel. An angel I am not, but I am happy to bring comfort to someone in need. We are still friends today.
My second story is about a gentleman, who seemed lonely, so I initiated conversation with him. He told me that his fiancé of over 20 years had passed away just before his diagnosis and that there was no family who lived nearby, so he was going through treatments with no support. Most of his family live in one of the southern states. I suggested that he call them. I asked if he had a religious counselor he could call and talk to. I told him to speak with the receptionist at the front desk and she could put him in touch with his social worker who might be able to help him. The gentleman and I continued to talk each week. On his final week of treatment, we sat together and he told me he spoke with his family and that once he finished his treatments he was moving down south to be with them. I was thrilled for him. I told him I was happy that he would be going to be with his family and that they would be there to help care for him. He was such a sweet man and I truly felt our time together helped him get through a difficult period in his life.
What is the most challenging part of my job?
What do I consider the most challenging part of my job…being lost for words when someone tells me that they have little time left or this is the end of treatments. Trying to find words of comfort when there is little hope is extremely difficult.
What is the thing I like most about your job?
I love meeting people. I love hearing them tell me that I have helped in a small way, be it from a caregiver who needs support for their loved one, or talking with the patient who needs to hear the words, “I’ve sat in the same chair as you. I am recovering from cancer. I can understand how you feel.”
If someone was applying for a similar position, what would you tell them about the work?
I would tell them this is one of the best jobs I ever held. You go home hoping you have helped someone through a difficult time. Give it a chance, you will meet so many different people from everywhere and every walk of life. I promise you will leave each time you are at the hospital knowing that you are doing something good.
Read more about Gini’s husband and his work here.
Do you want to nominate a staff member, volunteer, co-worker, or friend for us to feature in “Five Questions With…” Go to oncolink.org/feedback and let us know!