After Beating Cancer, Survivor Volunteers Support to Patients at The James

Volunteers  OSUCCC  James

Tom Sutherland is a good judge of people.

“I can tell from the look on their face,” says the volunteer at the OSUCCC – James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute.

And what Tom often sees on the faces of patients and family members as they walk into The James is anxiety mixed with a little confusion.

“They may have driven two or three hours, maybe longer—this could be their first time in Columbus or coming (to The James) and they’re new to all of this,” says Tom, who is also a good listener and the type of person people quickly connect with and feel as though they’ve known for years. “I say hello and tell them I’m a volunteer and ask where they’re from.”

Tom, 69, a retired tanker-truck driver for BP Oil, is one of 490 James volunteers—287 Ohio State University students and 203 others, many of whom are former James patients, like Tom, or have had family members treated at the hospital.

“I was always healthy,” Tom says. “Then in 2007, I had a (prostate) biopsy and heard the big C word. I was lucky, they caught it early and I was operated on here at The James on December 6, 2007.”

About a year later, Tom called The James Patient Experience office and said he wanted to volunteer. “It was bugging me that I didn’t call sooner,” he says. “I wanted to give something back. They treated me so well here.”

Tom began volunteering a few weeks later, in the “old” James hospital. He was a patient education librarian and roamed the hospital filling racks with information pamphlets for patients. “I had a cart and went everywhere and got to know everyone,” Tom says.

When the new James opened in 2014, Tom was out of a job—sort of.

“There weren’t any more racks for the pamphlets—everything was (digital),” he says. But Katie Kiene, the associate director – volunteer services at The James, had something in mind.

“Katie told me, ‘Tom, you’re a people person, we want you at the front desk as a concierge,’” he says.

And so, every Friday since The James opened, Tom has volunteered in the main lobby as a concierge. He greets patients and their families, helps them feel at ease, answers questions, and pushes those in wheelchairs where they need to go.

And every Monday, Tom does a volunteer shift in one of the chemotherapy suites. Because some patients return the same time every Monday, they see Tom regularly. “We get to know each other’s names and we talk and that’s very rewarding,” Tom says. “I’m supposed to do a two-hour shift, but I usually stay an extra hour.”

One of Tom’s most memorable volunteering memories involves a patient he met several years ago on an elevator. Of course, they got to talking, and over the next few months saw each other from time to time.

“Just last week, when I was on concierge duty, I saw her,” Tom says. “She had all her hair back and told me she was doing great and didn’t even have to come back for another year, and then she gave me a big hug.”

Tom and his wife, Cindy, have two daughters and five grandchildren.

Oh, and if you’re still not convinced that Tom specializes in sweetening the days of those around him, he always brings a pocketful of buckeye candies when he heads to The James.

“I hand them out to patients, caregivers, OSU employees—you know, in Ohio, a buckeye means good luck, so people always smile and thank me.”

Are you interested in joining Tom as a James volunteer? Click here for info.