After a 40-year career in Health Information Management at MD Anderson, Valdia Blair has found volunteer work to be a good fit during retirement. For the past 11 months, she’s been helping patients, their friends and families, and hospital guests find their way to appointments and other locations.
She and Dan Neskora often are the first faces people see when they enter the lobby of the Main Building. The duo is very good at first impressions.
Neskora, a retired chemical engineer and seven-year volunteer, says his goal as a navigator is to “make the patient experience as pleasant as possible, and make the sometimes overwhelming size of MD Anderson seem a little smaller.”
Blair and Neskora know firsthand about the patient experience – both are cancer survivors who were treated at the institution. They were inspired to volunteer by their own experience as patients.
“When I came to MD Anderson for a second opinion, I remember how my first encounter with a volunteer made me feel,” Neskora says. “And I wanted to do the same for others.”
What do you enjoy most about volunteering?
Blair: “Meeting the patients and their caregivers, and being available to help in any way I can during their time at MD Anderson.”
Neskora: “Meeting and helping patients begin their cancer treatment journey, and then being remembered when they come back during and after their treatment. I’ve made many friends along the way.”
Is there a particular experience that comes to mind when you think about your work as a volunteer?
Neskora: “Yes, one experience in particular stands out in my memory. A gentleman came in the front door, and I could tell immediately he wasn’t feeling well. He’d received cancer treatment elsewhere, then was referred by his physician to MD Anderson. However, the gentleman had no information on the referral. With the help of a staff member, we talked with the gentleman and he shared his diagnosis with us. With that information, I was able to escort him to the appropriate clinic. The following week I saw the gentleman again and he was feeling much better. I would see him every week for several months and each time he was doing better and better. He always thanked me for helping him that first day.”
Blair: One day, an unaccompanied patient was dropped off at the R. Lee Clark Clinic. It turned out that his appointment was in another clinic, and he became visibly upset. I reassured him that I would get him to the Mays Clinic, where he needed to be. Once there, he asked if I could stay with him until the nurse called him back, and I did. While we waited, he shared a little about himself and his grandkids. When the nurse called him back, I helped him to the door. As I turned to walk away, he reached for my hand and placed a folded $20 bill in it. When I told him I couldn’t accept it, he asked me why, saying that I had gone above and beyond to help him. I told him, ‘This is why we’re here!’”
Of note: In addition to his work as a navigator, Neskora has been active in improving the treatment experience for patients, survivors and caregivers. He’s the current chair of the myCancerConnection Steering Committee, which works with staff to develop and guide support programs for patients, survivors and caregivers. He also trains new volunteers to be navigators, and was a mentor to Blair.