Photo by Stephen Legendre
A cancer diagnosis can be devastating, confusing and frustrating. But Kenner North, Louisiana, Kiwanian Columbus “Lum” Ellis has made it his mission to desensitize the word “cancer” and bring patients comfort and understanding.
In February 2009, Ellis received a startling diagnosis. After experiencing progressively worsening stomach pain over the course of a month, he visited an emergency room. An assessment revealed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer that originates in your lymphatic system — a network in your body that typically fights disease.
“I was so impressed with the way they treated me,” Ellis says of Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. “Everyone loved and cared for me. So I told them, ‘If you get me well, I’ll be a volunteer.’”
He kept his word. Four years ago, he helped one of the oncology nurses initiate a chemotherapy orientation to teach patients what to expect after they are diagnosed.
“Some of these people are so anxious and nervous, they don’t even want to undergo treatment, let alone do it with a willing heart,” he says.
A social psychologist by training, Ellis knows the importance of building relationships, and makes time every day to interact with newly diagnosed patients, as well as chat with familiar faces to make sure they’re at ease with their medical situation.
“I see people change, through their body language and facial expressions. And when you can honestly tell them that 68 percent of the people diagnosed get over it and die of something else — that’s a bold statement, and I’ve seen it happen many times.”
Another of his strategies involves using the word “cancer” frequently — “to try to get them over thinking that’s a bad word. … We try to put ourselves in that patient’s place, and this chemo class is our best effort to make a personal relationship with the patient. We give them a tour of the lab so they understand what it looks like, and answer questions like whether it will hurt, why their hair falls out and why blood work is done.” He also reminds them of the importance of proper nutrition and exercising caution around sick family members since their immune system is already low.
“Lum has the ability to make patients feel welcomed and at home when they aren’t feeling their best. He enjoys spending time with our patients, providing support and comfort as they undergo treatment,” his supervisors say.
Even though interactions with him have changed the way patients view their prognoses, Ellis cites a study demonstrating the mental benefits of volunteering, and insists that spending two days per week with the oncology department give him much more than he could ever offer another person.
“I hope that more Kiwanians — particularly as they approach the time in their lives when they have the time and need for service — recognize its much more fun than anything than ever got paid to do!,” Ellis says. — Courtney Meyer
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