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Giving back: Volunteers important part of patient treatment

Tucking a large white blanket around John Smith, who's stretched out in a recliner receiving chemotherapy at Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks, Kelly Seng lingers at his side.

Kelly Seng, a volunteer, covers John Smith with a blanket during his round of chemotherapy Thursday at the Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks. (Photo by Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)
Kelly Seng, a volunteer, covers John Smith with a blanket during his round of chemotherapy Thursday at the Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks. (Photo by Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)

Tucking a large white blanket around John Smith, who's stretched out in a recliner receiving chemotherapy at Altru Cancer Center in Grand Forks, Kelly Seng lingers at his side.

"Is there anything else you need?" she asks with a smile.

Seng is in no hurry and, in the small room designed for one-person treatment, the two talk at length about his family.

After her father-in-law died of cancer almost two years ago, Seng decided she wanted to become a volunteer as "a way for me to pay back the kindness he received there," she said.

She had often accompanied him to the cancer center. The experience opened her eyes.

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"It changes you when you live with someone who has cancer," she said. As a cancer patient, "you rely on people around you, and you don't ever want to be alone."

When she began exploring volunteer options, Seng learned about the need at the Altru Cancer Center.

"I thought, 'That's perfect,' " she said.

At the cancer center, she and other volunteers attend to patients during their treatments, making sure they have everything they need-a warm blanket, a pillow, a beverage, or just someone to talk to.

"A lot of them come by themselves, and they want to visit," said Seng of Grand Forks. "We make small talk about where they're from, what their job is or was, their family, kids or pet."

Volunteers also serve meals or offer snacks to help make patients feel more comfortable and relaxed.

Groovy Cartwright, a stay-at-home mom who also volunteers at the cancer center, said, "Volunteering gives me the flexibility to serve. ... We're helping people and families deal with the worst situation of their lives."

Her background as a nurse also "gives me the opportunity to improve the quality of lives on another level."

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"When we have a full house of 16 or 18 patients, we're 'hummingbirds,' " she said. "They fall all under our wings. I really enjoy that."

The best part, though, is "no paperwork," she said. "I can focus on the person that's there."

Also, setting an example of service, for her children to emulate, is a critical benefit.

"The influence is immeasurable, what they absorb from what they see," she said.

'Valuable role'

"We have some very dedicated volunteers," said Gena McCarty, an oncology nurse who mentors volunteers at the Altru Cancer Center. "They take their job-even though they're not paid-very seriously. They serve a very valuable role here. With that extra hands-on time, they provide an important gift to patients."

Serving patients lunch, whether it's a hot meal or a sandwich, is beneficial to their well-being, McCarty said. "Lunch is the best part of the day. Patients need to eat. The volunteers get to know their (individual) likes."

The services volunteers provide help to ease the burden on nurses who can then focus on providing health care services, she said. "They take the time to do those little things we don't have time to do, because we're busy with treatment."

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Those sessions can last anywhere from 15 minutes to six hours, McCarty said.

With the repeat visits for treatment, "our volunteers get to know the patients," she said. "They get on a first-name basis. ... Patients look for them, and volunteers look for the patients, they'll say, 'Is so-and-so coming in today?' "

Such familiarity is less likely in other departments at Altru where volunteers' contact with patients is a one-time event.

Altru Health System offers numerous opportunities in various departments, most of which are hospital-based, but others are available in Devils Lake, Crookston, East Grand Forks, the blood bank and the health system's campus in south Grand Forks, said Kelly Quigley, supervisor of volunteer services.

They may or may not involve patient contact.

Volunteering is an opportunity for students to obtain valuable experience and insights into careers they may be interested in pursuing.

"We try to match skill sets and interests with volunteer opportunities," Quigley said.

Typical shifts run about two or three hours, she said. "Most volunteers fill one shift a week."

Volunteer retention is more than 90 percent, she said. Some volunteers have served for more than 30 years.

For many, especially retired people or those whose spouse has died, "it's a way to keep busy, serve others, and get out of the house," Quigley said.

"Some are former patients who had a positive experience and want to give back."

Volunteering isn't just for older people, she noted. The youngest volunteer at Altru is 14.

In 2016, 35 former volunteers became Altru employees.

Although many people lead busy lives, Altru prioritizes flexibility, as well as "positions that provide high impact, so people feel their time is well spent," Quigley said.

And that approach to volunteerism seems to be working.

"People say they leave here with more energy," she said. "They feel filled up from it."

Meeting people

Volunteering "is different every single day, every single moment," Cartwright said. "Seeing how strong (patients) are, how resilient they are, it grounds you."

Despite the busy pace of society, Cartwright believes volunteering "is still thriving," she said. "It's about the quality of how you use your time."

"I love volunteering," Seng said. At the cancer center, there are "wonderful people I've had the privilege to know.

"There's no time like the present to give back ... and (patients) are so appreciative. They come up and say that, and that's nice to hear."

As a volunteer, "you meet a lot of neat people-all ages, all walks of life," she said.

The most enjoyable aspect of volunteering "is just the opportunity to help people, to support the staff and the families in any way I can," she said.

The patients she meets "want a friendly smile, a soft voice ... to have a person who cares."

To learn more about volunteering at Altru Health System, contact Kelly Quigley, supervisor of volunteer services, at (701) 780-5125 or kquigley@altru.org .

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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