Health care volunteers fulfilling a vital role in patient care, advocacy

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Find the CURE: From left, Kim Lee, Dawn Vitalone and Candy Lieber, all from Crown Point, encourage the public to join the Relay For Life, which raises money for research and services for cancer patients. | Mary Compton ~ For Sun-Times Media

Roger Willis is a good listener.

He listened to his sister, Helen, who lives in West Virginia, when she told him about her treatment for cervical cancer.

“She was telling me how hard it was to go 40 to 50 miles one way to get to her hospital treatments they had set up,” he said.

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Then Willis, a Chicago fireman, listened to his own heart when he pursued volunteer work after sustaining an on-the-job injury.

“I took a fall and was really blessed to wake up,” said Willis, who fell from a building and landed on the concrete. “Whatever it takes to give back.”

And he listened to his daughter when she suggested he get involved with the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.

And now, as a Road to Recovery volunteer, Willis listens to cancer patients as he drives them to doctor’s appointments and treatment sessions.

“It’s more than driving,” said Willis, who is on duty disability from the fire department since his accident. “You become a listener to the patients. They need someone to talk to... because their family can’t always be with them.”

It’s not unusual for Willis to still get phone calls from patients after they finish treatment — just to chat and catch up.

“You become more than just a driver. You become good friends and family members,” said.

Willis is one of a growing army of health care volunteers providing vital services to patients.

In addition to driving, there are a variety of ways to make an impact at the ACS. Other opportunities include event planning and fundraising, with many young professionals looking to increase their skills and grow their resumés. Other advocacy activities include a summer program that pairs high school students with a research scientist to get them interested in the field of cancer research, as well as work on the legislative front.

Dawn Vitalone, a registered nurse in Crown Point, got involved with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life of South Lake County with her best friend, Kim Lee, about 15 years ago.

“I saw firsthand how the money raised in Relay for Life impacted patients,” said Vitalone, who works as a nurse case manager in oncology.

Now, she and Kim co-chair the event. This year they hope to raise $150,000. If they raise close to $200,000, Vitalone will shave her head “in honor of those who have gone bald from that horrible disease,” she said.

“It’s really a life-changing event, and every year it’s just more and more empowering,” Vitalone said. “To see all those purple shirts at the relay and know more and more people are beating cancer because of the money we raised.”

Recession’s impact

And make no mistake about it: money is an obstacle.

With the economy, people just don’t have money for transportation, Willis said.

“People can’t afford taxis, and people can’t afford transportation for themselves to get to treatment,” he said.

Karen Larimer, who is on the board of directors for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago and several of its committees, said that that organization is experiencing an increase in requests for health care services.

“Definitely a higher demand because people tend to be under or not insured at all,” Larimer said. “We do what we can. I know from the perspective of Catholic Charities, the demand and need has increased tremendously.

“We tried to assess, what’s our role there. Do we try to facilitate services or do we try to provide services?” she said.

While the economy has not affected the number of volunteers at the ACS, which is the largest volunteer-driven organization in the country, other organizations, such as the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Indiana Chapter, are not so lucky.

“I am seeing more people that are not volunteering because of their jobs. They’re either working more hours or they had some flexibility with their jobs and now they’re doing the jobs of three or four people so now they don’t have the time,” said Louise Thompson, Community Outreach Specialist for the Greater Indiana Chapter.

Volunteers are needed there for education activities, event planning and as support group facilitators.

Although the Walk to End Alzheimer’s has good day-of participation, “for people to help with the ongoing planning, we seem to have a challenge,” said Thompson, who is the sole employee for seven counties.

Building on enthusiasm

Larimer, who is also on the board of directors for the American Heart Association, has seen enthusiasm grow in people interested in donating their time.

While speaking to a group of student nurses on community health, she talked about the volunteer work available at the AHA. The following Saturday, 25 students showed up to help with an education program.

“If there is a call to action, people will respond,” Larimer said. “It’s so exciting that people can latch on to something that they get excited about and do more.”

Thompson, who volunteered for the Alzheimer’s Association for six years before taking a full-time job with the organization four years ago, worked with Ivy Tech Community College students who volunteered and would like to work with more.

“If there is somebody interested in volunteering, I will do my best to find something for them,” Thompson said.