Whether barbecuing for a hungry crowd, mentoring a youngster who needs a role model or bringing a warm blanket to a grateful patient, Ervin Grice’s life is all about serving others.
“I’ve always been community minded,” says Grice, 69. “It’s how my parents raised me and it’s how I raised my kids.”
For the past seven years, he has volunteered as a patient advocate in MD Anderson’s Emergency Center, where patients receive after-hours critical care. His main role, he says, is to provide a calming and caring presence.
“Folks coming into the Emergency Center have an immediate medical issue. They’re in pain, they’re ill, and sometimes they’re upset. I stay with them from the time they arrive until the doctor takes over.”
“What can I do to make you more comfortable?” Grice greets patients warmly, though he’s careful not to overdo it.
“You have to know when to insert yourself and when to back away,” he explains. “Have you ever tried to enjoy a meal in a restaurant, and the waiter or waitress keeps interrupting? You don’t want to be like that.”
A good day in the Emergency Center is a slow day, Grice says.
“If you come to MD Anderson as a patient, I look forward to helping you,” he says. “But I’d prefer to not see you here.”
When Grice retired in 2005 after 41 years as a software engineer with NASA, he immediately began seeking challenging volunteer opportunities. Recalling his experience as a prostate cancer patient at MD Anderson years ago, the cancer center naturally came to mind.
“I still remember how impressed I was by those friendly volunteers in light blue jackets. They were always smiling and greeting me, keeping me company, and offering assistance. Now I’m proud to join their ranks,” says Grice, briskly adjusting his own blue jacket with a self-assured tug.
Because of his proficiency in the Emergency Center, he has been selected to mentor and train new MD Anderson volunteers who shadow him for three weeks to learn the ropes.
“Ervin is an exceptional volunteer,” says Susan French, executive director of Volunteer Services. “He’s dedicated, he’s enthusiastic and he makes everyone feel special and valued.”
One of Grice’s favorite volunteer roles at MD Anderson is mentoring children in the Health Adventures Program, which introduces youngsters to hospital careers. On Saturdays during the school year, 20 fifth-graders cheerfully hop off a bus and burst through the doors of the hospital, eager to learn something new.
“They could be home watching TV or playing video games, but they’d rather be here,” says Grice, who guides the children on behind-the-scenes hospital tours. On a given weekend, the kids will don hospital scrubs, try out stethoscopes on a nursing unit or maneuver wheelchairs to learn about rehabilitation.
Children chosen for the program are academic high achievers from economically challenged households.
“They’re dealing with tough times at home, but doing well in school, and we want them to continue doing well,” Grice says. “We may be one of the few positive role models they have.”
Several program graduates each year profess their desire to become a nurse, a scientist or a doctor.
“That’s how powerful and gratifying this program is,” says Grice, who preaches the benefits of keeping busy.
“Stay active,” Grice says. “It’s good for your health and your soul.”
And active he is. On a recent weekend, Grice was up at 5 a.m., training to join 13,000 other runners in next January’s Chevron Houston Marathon.
To “have some fun and relieve some stress,” he runs 28 miles weekly, and especially likes to jog from Memorial Park to the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston, then back again.
So far he’s run 19 full marathons and three half-marathons.
“Not bad for an old man,” he quips.
Martha Joyce, Grice’s wife of 45 years and a retired schoolteacher, prefers to exercise on the dance floor.
“When we Zumba and line dance at the senior center,” says Grice, “we really kick up our heels.”
On a Saturday this summer, Grice barbecued chicken, sausage and ribs basted in his legendary “secret sauce.” A closely guarded combination of herbs, spices and other classified ingredients he concocted 30 years ago, the sauce regularly draws the entire family to the backyard. Relatives plead for the recipe. “Nope,” says Grice.
The celebration commemorated a family milestone. Grice’s 14-year-old grandson, Reid, joined MD Anderson as a teen volunteer. He mans the popcorn cart in the hospital’s main lobby, where more than a thousand patients, caregivers and visitors enter each day.
“I just hope he can keep up with me,” Grice says with a wink.