How volunteers brighten Christmas Day for our hospitalized patients

Fran Epstein arrives before sunrise to organize gifts and review the inpatient hospital floors to visit. Soon after, others join her to prepare for the day. Wearing festive hats, this brigade of committed volunteers visits each floor, pushing carts loaded with teddy bears and blankets.

One group, divided into teams of three or four, goes door to door to each patient room, while the other volunteers serve a special free catered lunch – all bringing holiday cheer to ensure patients and their families have a special Christmas Day despite being in the hospital.

The makings of an MD Anderson tradition

Epstein’s mother, Honey, began volunteering at MD Anderson in 1967 by organizing a weekly party for pediatric patients.

When she found out there were no special plans for patients who were in the hospital for Christmas, she decided her family of four would come to visit. Her husband, Stan, and two teenage daughters, Fran and Susan, went from room to room to wish each patient a Merry Christmas.

“The patients were surprised,” says Fran Epstein, recalling that first holiday. “They didn’t expect visitors.”

The next year, more families wanted to help.

They brought each patient a nutcracker, candy and newspaper. In later years, teddy bears were substituted for nutcrackers. She still remembers a patient who couldn’t talk following surgery.

“He cried tears of joy after receiving that teddy bear,” she says.

At first, Epstein’s dad nicknamed the group the Jewish brigade. As the years went on, people from all faiths joined in, so he renamed them the ecumenical brigade.

“The patients in the hospital over the holiday often have no family here and nowhere to go, are too ill to be discharged, are recovering from surgery, or are in need of treatment,” Epstein says. “They appreciate having visitors and being able to talk to someone. It’s a nice way to create special memories, on what may have been a sad and lonely day to be in the hospital.”

An expanding operation that puts cancer patients first

The operation has grown over time, with support from other volunteers and MD Anderson’s Volunteer Services and Merchandising team. Fifty-two years later, a brigade of more than 30 volunteers visits every inpatient on Dec. 25. Each adult inpatient gets gifts (a stuffed animal and a blanket), and a newspaper. The volunteers also bring boxes of chocolate to all of the nursing stations to treat staff working on the holiday.

Even though her parents have passed away, Epstein continues the tradition.

“I do it to honor their legacy and commitment,” she says. “They were both loving and selfless people, always putting others first.”

A special holiday lunch

Each year, more than 40 volunteers serve approximately 600 patients and family members a holiday feast, either in Café Anderson or in their rooms, prepared by Dining Services staff. Volunteers dish up a holiday lunch of roasted turkey with all the trimmings.

Mindy Wertheimer, a director in Volunteer Services and Merchandising, says the staff coordinates with volunteers to purchase gifts and manage the holiday luncheon, which are funded through the Volunteer Endowment for Patient Support.

“We play fun holiday music, and everyone has a great time,” Wertheimer says. “Patients and their families really love it.”

Special gifts from Santa for childhood cancer patients

Epstein and Konarik make sure our childhood cancer patients and their families get extra attention.

Konarik coordinates a kid-friendly meal, including dinosaur chicken nuggets and French fries, for families of pediatric patients in MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. Meanwhile, Epstein’s special pediatric team, headed by long-time volunteer Marisa Nowitz, hand-delivers personalized giant gift bags of games and toys selected by parents for the patients and their siblings.

“Parents often aren’t focused on the holidays, and some may not have the money or time to shop when a child is in the hospital,” Epstein says. “This is a way for them to give all of their children handpicked gifts on Christmas morning.”

The volunteers are greeted with smiles, and by the end of the day, Gerson says it’s hard to tell who had more fun – the volunteers and staff or patients and their families. 

“We get a lot of thanks and hugs,” she says. “And truly, that’s the best part.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.

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