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Rich Kelly fights his own battle after 10 years of steady volunteer service at St. Charles Cancer Center

Author: Ben Salmon, 8/28/2019 3:05:00 PM

When Rich Kelly moved to Bend in 2009, he wanted to take a few months to decompress.

And then it was time to go back to work.

Not the same kind of work, mind you. Before he was a volunteer at St. Charles Cancer Center, Kelly spent 37 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he spent his last 15 years captaining a ship, helping to plan the future of the service, working to stop the flow of illegal drugs from Southeast Asia to the United States and then trying to figure out why 9/11 happened and how to stop it from happening again.

“My last three or four tours of duty were pretty high stress,” Kelly, 65, said. “I knew coming to the end of my career that I wanted to do volunteer work as a kind of continuation of helping other people. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Upon retirement, Kelly and his wife packed up and moved to Bend, where Kelly took that few months off he so richly deserved. Then one morning he saw a note in The Bulletin about the need for volunteers at the cancer center.

“I said, ‘OK, why not?’” he said. “I just jumped in and got started. That was February of 2010 and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

That’s understating Kelly’s contributions just a bit. After starting off part-time for a few months, Kelly moved into the Integrative Therapies department of the cancer center in July of 2010 and started volunteering from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day. He never stopped, and earlier this year, he was honored with a pin to commemorate his 14,000th volunteer hour at St. Charles. For comparison’s sake, the volunteer with the second-most hours served is Myrna Deardorff at about 9,600 hours, said Brad Ruder, the health system’s guest and volunteer services supervisor.

Kelly believes there will be a time when he realizes that he only has so many years left in his life and that he’ll want to start doing more things with his wife on a daily basis. But for right now, he’s just trying to keep the domestic peace.

“If I went stone cold into retirement, I would’ve driven myself nuts and I would’ve driven my wife nuts. So this is actually like a retirement transition plan because this is so much lower stress,” Kelly said. “There’s very little stress here and I’m only doing about half the hours I was doing on active duty, so this is easing me into the concept of actually retiring. I get to do everything I want, and I don’t drive my wife crazy by fidgeting around the house. It’s a good thing.”

Every day, Kelly sits at the front desk of Integrative Therapies, where he’s the receptionist and he manages the calendars of the cancer center’s massage, acupuncture and Reiki therapists. The center offers all three services free to help cancer patients deal with the side effects of their treatments. Kelly didn’t necessarily arrive at St. Charles with a passion for the three treatments, but he has developed one over the years.

“I can tell that they work. I can see the relief. The change in demeanor. The improved body language. When patients leave here … you can tell it’s helping just by the way they’re acting,” he said. “And you can see it from the number of repeat customers we have. They keep coming because they really love it and it works. And those are the people that you’re working with on a continuing basis and you actually get to be really good friends with them.”

Indeed, for Kelly, the most rewarding part of his volunteer service is not the work, but the people. That includes the caregivers for whom he schedules appointments, all of whom recognize the blessing and the benefits of having Kelly at the reception desk, acting as the public face of the department.

“He makes this place run smoothly,” said acupuncturist Carli Gaines. “He really is like our rock. He holds us together and we notice that as his teammates, but my patients always comment on it as well -- how much they love him and how much he helps ground them.”

Scheduling appointments for cancer patients takes a special combination of skills, said Susan Turnbull, manager of operations for St. Charles cancer services. You must be organized and detail-oriented, but at the same time you have to be able to communicate with patients in a way that is both compassionate and firm when caregiver schedules are full.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. You have to have a gift,” Turnbull said. “I don’t feel like our patients ever feel like they’re being told ‘no’ by Rich or our other volunteers. They have such a gracious way of working with them, and Rich has set that bar very high.”

Behind his desk, Kelly has a file folder full of thank you notes from patients, and on his desk is a basket of items, many emblazoned with inspirational words. It’s like a little lending library of trinkets for patients to pass around encouraging words among themselves, to make sure everyone knows that they are not fighting cancer alone.

Kelly draws inspiration for it, too. Now more than ever.

“I have learned so much over the past however many years from the grace, the poise and the dignity with which (our patients) have faced and overcome a life-altering diagnosis. That has been so rewarding,” he said, before pointing to his own hairless head. “And actually it’s helped me because I’m a patient now. I just finished my chemo treatments last week.”

In April, Kelly was diagnosed with follicular lymphoma, a blood cancer. Doctors caught it early, he said, and have given him a good prognosis for a full recovery. He has been receiving massage, acupuncture and Reiki treatment from his colleagues, and he has been buoyed by his experiences interacting with patients over the past decade.

“If somebody told me, ‘You have cancer’ I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted,” he said. “But because I’d already been here for nine years at that point, it was like, ‘OK, I understand. I’ve seen lots of people do this. I’ve seen how well they’ve dealt with it. If they can do it, I know I can do it too, because they’ve been such good examples for me.’”

In other words, even after 14,000 hours volunteered at St. Charles Cancer Center, Rich Kelly still feels like he’s coming out ahead.

“However much people say I am giving,” he said, “I tell you I am getting more out of it than I’m giving. That’s what keeps me going here.”