“God bless Jimmy Carter. Isn’t he a trooper?”
Jan Wallace is referring to the former president’s recent cancer diagnosis.
“I think he’s an inspiration. He gives people hope, and his attitude is incredible. He just says, ‘Whatever will be, will be,’” she says.
At 40 years, Jan Wallace is MD Anderson’s longest-serving volunteer. She’s put in close to 8,800 hours of time to make life easier for patients.
Her service predates Carter’s presidency by two years. Gerald Ford was in office in January 1975 when Wallace and her best friend and former roommate from SMU decided they wanted to do something to make a difference.
“Forty years ago a lot of women didn’t work outside the home. So we decided we wanted to do volunteer work. Something that was worthwhile,” she says. “We decided we needed to help people with cancer. And cancer was so terrible. So, first week of January, we got in the car, drove down to MD Anderson and walked through the front — the old clinic entrance — and said, ‘We want to volunteer.’
“They gave us two jackets and sent us upstairs to the information desk.”
Back then the well-known blue jackets volunteers wear today were “real bright orange and white,” a nod to The University of Texas.
Her first assignment? Making sure patients were the ones who got the available chairs in the waiting room.
“It would get really, really crowded in the waiting room. People were sitting on the floor … sitting outside,” she says. “My friend, who stood nearly 6 feet tall, would go stand in the middle of the room and tell the crowd of patients and visitors, ‘Everyone who’s not a patient, get out of the chairs.’”
Over the years, Wallace has worked in patient advocacy, the pharmacy, Camp AOK (“It’s amazing, the spirit of the children. It’s just an upper.”) and, for the past six years, the third-floor information desk near Garage 10.
There she sees that patients coming into the Main Building find their way and does all she can to assist them. That includes just being there to chat or listen.
It may not sound like a lot, but, as Wallace will tell you, it is.
“Years ago, somebody said to a friend of mine, ‘What does Jan Wallace do besides put on a jacket and walk around and talk?’”
But she says talking to patients is one of the most important things volunteers do — it always has been. It’s one of the few things that haven’t changed about MD Anderson in the past 40 years.
What are some differences?
One of the most beneficial changes for patients Wallace has seen over the years is the development of technology.
“The most wonderful thing that’s happened, really, are all of these handheld gadgets,” she says, referring to smart phones and tablets that provide much-needed diversion for patients during long waits. “They help people pass the time.”
And, oftentimes, she says, they allow caregivers — a spouse or a friend — to work remotely so they can be at their loved ones’ side.
“It lets them be together, which is so wonderful.”
And what hasn’t changed since 1975? She points to the kindness of the staff and the determination of the patients. She tears up a little thinking back through the years about so many of the wonderful people she’s met.
“I so admire the people who work at MD Anderson every day. Their attitudes and kindness are incredible,” she says. “I have been blessed to be able to volunteer here. It’s been a blessing in my life. I’ve met so many wonderful people. It’s a special place.”
Something else that hasn’t changed is the disease itself. “Cancer is mean. No two ways about it.”
Wallace was never more aware of that fact than in 2013, when her youngest daughter died of lung cancer at age 50.
Devastated by the loss, Wallace found solace in her work at MD Anderson.
“When my daughter died, someone asked, ‘How can you keep volunteering at
MD Anderson when you see so many suffering from that disease?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s the only way I have to fight cancer.’
“What else can I do?” she says. “But if I can help someone just a little bit, that’s all I can do right now. I’m not a doctor. It’s the last thing my daughter would want me to stop. Quitting isn’t going to help anything.”
The 40-year volunteer: then and now
A brief look at some of the differences four decades have made at MD Anderson, which, in 1975, was known as The University of Texas System Cancer Center:
“Jan has been an inspiration to all volunteers!”