Rayvon Mitchell is on a mission

As a curbside assistant at Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute, he’s spreading love to cancer patients in need

Of all the things the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away, Rayvon Mitchell misses hugs the most.

Mitchell, a certified nursing assistant, works as a curbside assistant at Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute. From 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. five days a week, he’s there to greet cancer patients as they arrive. But these days, his megawatt smile is hidden behind a protective mask, and his trademark hugs have been put on hold.

“I can’t hug my patients, and it’s killing me,” Mitchell said. “When you use your heart to do things, it becomes so contagious for other people. That’s my goal right now: to love everyone and to make my cancer patients feel loved and cared for when they get here. I always tell my patients, ‘You cross the line in that parking lot, and you belong to me.’ They’re all my babies.”

In the midst of the pandemic, he didn’t want those patients to think he loved them any less, so he and his wife made a sign to hang at his post. It reads: “Corona made me stop hugging you, but God knows I still love you.”

When you ask Mitchell where all that love comes from, he’ll tell you his patients saved his life. Before he married his current wife, whom he met at Forsyth Medical Center, he was in a bad relationship. He never confided in patients about his situation, but the love they showed him helped him through what was a profoundly difficult time. 

“They never knew it, but they were carrying me, and I tell them that story all the time,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell has, in turn, carried them. He tells the story of an elderly cancer patient who came to the cancer center with his two sons. The man needed help getting out of his car, but he didn’t want help from Mitchell — at first.

“His sons were trying to warn me that he was prejudiced and didn’t like Black people touching him, but he needed help getting into a wheelchair,” Mitchell said. “I got him in the chair and took him to the location of his treatment. He said nothing to me the whole time, but I was shooting him with all kinds of love. It got to him. He was in tears. He said, ‘I am so sorry. I was treating you that way because of the color of your skin, and I know I’m wrong.’ I said, ‘Let’s forget that. Let’s move forward.’”

Stories like that are scattered across Mitchell’s career, one defined by impact and meaning.

Born and raised in Winston-Salem, he taught school for six years after graduating from college. The experience allowed him to accomplish one of his biggest goals in life: to teach third grade, the grade he had once failed as a child. At the same time, he realized teaching wouldn’t allow him to do everything he wanted to help kids who were struggling. So he went into law enforcement and started a program working with offenders, helping them integrate back into the community and connecting them with the resources they needed to be successful.

The offenders program was important work, but it wasn’t all Mitchell wanted to do with his life. In time, he became a firefighter. He went on to work in mental health services and as a therapeutic foster care coordinator, working to help troubled youths get their lives back on track.

“I would take some of my kids home on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and they would sit with my children and family and eat with us. I would give them those holidays they didn’t have,” Mitchell said. “Now, they come up to me as grown men and introduce me to their families and wives and children, and they say, ‘This is the man who saved my life.’”

From there, he went on to work in parks and recreation for the city of Winston-Salem. He even became a professional football player — at the age of 58 — when he signed a contract with the Winston Wildcats, part of the American Indoor Football league. 

One thing he never thought he would become is a nursing team member. And yet that career has become the one he loves most. Cancer is personal for Mitchell, as it is for so many. He lost a niece — “one of my best friends” — to brain cancer. His uncle — the man he’s named after — died of prostate cancer. And his sister is a breast cancer survivor. But his connection to the work goes deeper than that.

“I never could say I had a job that I loved until working here because I could use my heart, and that’s what I’m guided by with these patients,” Mitchell said. “I put myself directly in their place. I very rarely use, ‘I understand,’ when I talk to them. I try to show them, to use something more powerful than, ‘I understand what you’re going through,’ because a lot of people would say, ‘No, you don’t.’ I’ve been there. I know the feeling. I know the sting. I know the tears that have been shared. I know the heartache. But I try not to tell patients that because I can show you better than I can tell you.”

His approach works. Stacy Sawyers, a cancer services support specialist at the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute, has seen it firsthand.

“Rayvon delights our patients with his kind spirit and genuine caring attitude. If he is not at the door, you may find him meeting a patient at their car with a wheelchair or pushing patients to the correct waiting room,” Sawyers said. “His tenderness shows as he greets and assists those who need physical help. Even with a mask, he is the smile at the front door that becomes a big part of their cancer journey.”

Mitchell plans to continue being part of that journey. Even in retirement, he intends to work part time at the entrance to the Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute, helping patients in need.

“God blessed me to be full of love, so I want to share that,” Mitchell said. “The key is more love. We all need more love.”

You can spread the love with a gift to Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation.

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