"Oh, so you are the guitar pick guy. I heard about you," a fellow MD Anderson patient said to me.
Just before leaving my home in Michigan for my two-month stay in Houston, I had decided to do something to make the experience more positive. While playing my guitar, I'd noticed the logo on my guitar pick. That's when I came up with the idea for "Winky."
I rush-ordered 1,000 guitar picks custom-printed with one of 12 encouraging phrases on one side and a winking smiley face on the other. The phrases included things like "I think I can, I think I can" "Never give up" and "Be Kind. We need it." The winking smiley face is my own trademark. It's how I have always signed birthday cards, gift cards and other notes I give to people.
During my throat cancer treatment at MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center, I handed the guitar picks to other patients and staff members.
My proton therapy treatment for throat cancer
After my throat cancer diagnosis, my wife Paula and I had decided to travel to MD Anderson for my proton therapy treatment. This relatively new kind of cancer treatment, which could target my throat cancer while limiting side effects, wasn't available in Michigan at the time. Plus, the cancer center is extremely organized, and their personalized approach to treating my specific cancer with a team of doctors and support staff made complete sense.
During my first trip to MD Anderson, I'd noticed how quiet, and almost tense, waiting rooms could be. Before I came back for my longer stay, I decided to do something to make it make other cancer patients and caregivers, and even the staff, feel better.
Sharing a positive message with fellow cancer patients and staff
My black bag filled with multiple brightly colored guitar picks definitely broke the silence and more. The multiple messages, colors, styles and lettering made the chance of someone getting a repeat message highly unlikely. Some of the picks were even heart-shaped. The employees and technicians put their picks in their ID badge holder for people to see.
When people saw me coming, they approached me and told me the stories of how the guitar picks affected their lives. Some of the staff told me they'd decided to wear their pick on bracelets. Others mentioned passing them along to someone who needed a lift. Some mentioned how the pick actually gave them confidence to do something they were holding back on. I gave the picks to people of all ages, but children especially enjoyed them.
You could feel the warmth when a room full of people smiled as they reached for their picks. It seemed as if everyone had bonded as they asked each other, "What did your message say?"
When my treatments were over, I used the remaining picks to create a heart shape and put them in a shadow box, which I gave to the Proton Therapy Center. They hung it on the wall near the gong for other people to see. I feel good that I shared something that created happiness.
Handing out the guitar picks everyday helped me look forward to my treatments with a positive attitude. That's why it all started, anyway. Winky did what I wanted.