Painting by Susan Lugar

In My Own Words

by Susan Lugar

In My Own Words is a feature in the VIP Newsletter where volunteers can give their personal comments about why they volunteer at St. Jude.  

We’d never wish for any child to have a potentially catastrophic disease. But since they do, the thought turns us to a question, “As volunteers, what then, should we do?” We can talk about face masks, transplants or nausea, but even better, we can focus on what every patient dreams: Hope.

As we stroll down the St. Jude hospital hallways, they are lined in murals blushing in a kaleidoscope of colors, which reflect the very idea that in the midst of winter lies the hope of spring. Just as bulbs lie underneath frosty ground in a brown paper-like wrap, there’s more to it than what we see. Like bulbs, our patients have the potential to bloom—like a showcase of spring daffodils or a spread of crocus blossoms.

As volunteers, maybe we experience a bit of a child’s winter blizzard. But beyond the pain we find opportunities. Coming alongside a bulb underground in frozen turf, waiting for the thaw, it’s our chance to pour a cup of water over the ground. At times we may get to shield the spot or be a bit of sunshine—the light that sprays a gentle reminder that researchers still work into the nights to find cures for such diseases.

I’ve had the pleasure of raising three boys with my wonderful husband. I’ve experienced the joy of teaching school and of being with children in many places around the world. People have said that our family lives a colorful life. With over a decade in South Korea and two years in Hong Kong, it’s true we have seen many things, eaten even odder. We’ve marveled over the glitz and buzz of the world’s showiest harbor in Hong Kong, and I’ve stood over the cribs of some of the most unfortunate abandoned babes in the world. More recently I’ve been on school visits in Lima, Peru, and in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the latter, children persevere through what seems at best a life full of winters, a bumper crop of pain.

But I’ve found that serving at St. Jude opens opportunities that surpass those on foreign soils. Times at St. Jude trump the experience of life in Oriental squid-eating metropolises. You see when you can be a part of patients discovering laughter during the worst of times, you might just be on the top of what this world has to offer, in the form of joy. We provide a small measure of service at St. Jude, where children learn young to persevere and to filter life through a sieve of possibility.

Though some days are bad—really, really bad—everyone cheers the patients. “Press on!” the nurses urge, the doctors plead and patients mouth silently, because some days it’s just too hard to talk. As they adjust to their once-moonlit world now seemingly gone amuck, you simply hurt with them. Hopefully, our smiles support a father’s confidence that this hospital is not a place of adverse fate but a spot where a mother’s lullaby wafts through hopeful tears.

We know there’s a lot in store for these children. Like bulbs in winter wrap, they hold on fiercely through freezing temperatures, through lack of sunlight and the absence of spring’s garb. They miss the summer sounds of jubilee. In watching them, we are reminded that when the winds tear through the ice-coated trees, bulbs still wait quietly, underground in the dark.

And aren’t we the privileged ones to sometimes be a silver wedge of a child’s first spring? The spring outside of seasons—the one where a doctor’s smile may sprout in February as he grins, “Ah, the chemo is working; the tumor has shrunk.” Or she explains to a preschooler while marking out distorted circles on a napkin, “Honey, the wacky cells are gone now.”

Sometimes, however, the call is to be a part of an even-greater grace when the news is not so good. But even then we soon once again look forward, remembering that tomorrow is just a few hours away. The research continues as scientists don white coats in the middle of the night.

Ah, do you hear it, the sound of something like paper wrap tearing away? It’s a child waking up to the hope of a spread of daffodils or a lavender iris collection along her father’s tool shed. So, let’s be there with them all the way. And next time you pass a box of bulbs that appear dormant, or a sick child snuggling in a blanket, just remember there’s a whole lot nestled into that sleepy looking wrap.

“But it hurts...,” outsiders cry. “Why do you go to such a place?” Next time maybe we should gently answer with another question: “Is there a better place to be during a child’s winter blast?”

Susan Lugar has been a St. Jude volunteer since December 2005. She volunteers every Thursday. In the mornings she helps in the Physicians Referral Office and Affiliate Program, and in the afternoon she works with patients in the north area of the outpatient clinic. Lugar is the placement coordinator for the human resources department of the Network of International Christian Schools. She recruits and places teachers in one of 20 schools internationally. She holds a master’s degree in guidance counseling, a bachelor’s degree in English and teacher certificates in gifted, art and English.