Keep calm and play on: Volunteer uses his gifts to inspire others
It’s pitch black at 2 a.m. when John Dunsmoir gets in his car to make the drive from Austin every Friday to volunteer.
When he arrives around 5:30 a.m., the spry 81-year-old English expat stretches his legs, walking the pathway from MD Anderson’s Main Building to the Mays Clinic and back again. “I do my best to average 10,000 steps a day,” Dunsmoir says. “I’m an exercise advocate. I know if I keep moving, doing this, my situps, riding my stationary bike, I’ll keep going. If you keep going, you keep going.”
Dunsmoir’s sage advice also applies to the patients and loved ones he aids in the surgery waiting room. He gets to work studying the paperwork, noting the procedures and medical staff involved. Then, he visits with the families and supporters of the patients undergoing surgery.
“Sometimes I’ll have a room of 40 to 50 people. I make a note of where everyone is sitting, then I chat with them and do my best to keep them calm,” Dunsmoir explains. “A big part of this job is to create an atmosphere of peace. Everyone is so stressed and worried, and I just do everything I can to answer their questions and keep everyone as relaxed as possible.”
Experience in supporting patients and coordinating care
This can be challenging at times and requires the ability to juggle. But thanks to his vigorous exercise routine and over 40 years traveling the world as a software engineer for both IBM and American Airlines, Dunsmoir is up to the task.
“You have to be able to handle eight things hitting you at once. I might be four people deep at the desk, a nurse is asking me a question, then the hospital’s top bone cancer surgeon approaches,” he says. “It’s a lot of coordination, but I really enjoy it. I enjoy helping.”
Dunsmoir had experience helping his late wife, Beryl, through her medical treatments. At age 9, Beryl was diagnosed with rheumatic fever, and she experienced lifelong heart issues as a result. After she had a heart attack at 35 and underwent an aortic valve replacement, the couple immigrated to the United States for the reputation and skill of cardiology specialists available here.
They followed a doctor from New York to Texas, where Beryl had a second valve replacement. The couple moved to Austin after a stint in Houston, where they became all too familiar with the Texas Medical Center.
“She died at 77, which is a good deal better than the initial lifespan of 35 that doctors gave her. Then, when she passed, and being the good Catholic I am, I decided to volunteer,” Dunsmoir says.
Living in Austin didn’t deter him from volunteering in Houston. He joined the Spiritual Care Volunteer Program and began ministering to patients at MD Anderson. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. With his ability to counsel and give communion paused, Dunsmoir looked for another way to help.
He was already known to MD Anderson’s Volunteer Services and Merchandising team, so when they asked him about tackling the surgery waiting area once MD Anderson resumed its volunteer program, he had one question. “I asked them, ‘Well, when do I start?’”
Mary Jackson, director of Volunteer Services, admires Dunsmoir’s dedication and understanding. “John is so committed to helping others. He loves working with all volunteers, especially the college students,” she says. “In the surgery waiting area volunteer role, he uses his caregiver experience to support others. He understands firsthand what it is like to be a caregiver waiting to know a loved one’s status.”
Dunsmoir has yet another gift to share – “an added bonus,” Jackson calls it.
Before it was put on hold, Dunsmoir would make his way to a piano bench after finishing his shift in the surgery waiting room. “I’m a self-taught pianist. I never took lessons, but we had an old piano in my grandmother’s house growing up,” Dunsmoir says. “By 4 years old, I had learned how to harmonize. I naturally had an ear for it.”
Of MD Anderson’s six grand pianos, he likes the one near the Aquarium best, but he plays the one inside the Rotary House Hotel most often. Though the piano position has been paused due to COVID-19 precautions, Dunsmoir still likes to play when given permission and access via volunteer services.
His favorite songs to play are “We Are the Champions” by Queen and “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John. He also enjoys playing classical pieces by composers like Gershwin and Liszt.
“The people are always extremely thankful,” Dunsmoir says. “Sometimes they’ll request songs, and we’ll have some enormous conversations. I can tell that people really enjoy it.”
Longtime MD Anderson volunteer John Dunsmoir, 81, leaves his home in Austin at 2 a.m. every Friday to drive to Houston for his volunteer shift in the surgery waiting area. Dunsmoir also frequents the pianos around MD Anderson and is a regular fixture walking the skybridge between buildings for extra exercise.
A big part of this job is to create an atmosphere of peace.