She’s a volunteer. A cancer patient. And a friend.
Each Wednesday at 2 p.m., Claudia Zorn Schaefer sits down at the piano in the lobby of the Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute in Winston-Salem.
A cancer survivor currently in treatment, Schaefer knows her way around the outpatient center all too well. But on this day, she is not here for chemo nor to meet with her oncologist. She is here for those who are. She pulls out her playlist and where life and death cross paths for some, she begins each week with the same song.
“Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.”
Schaefer is one of 1,200 volunteers across the Novant Health system who do their best to make each patient’s morning, noon and night as beautiful as it can be. Not all volunteers are cancer patients who play the piano. But in their own way – from greeting visitors to handing out snacks – each one has answered the call to make a painful experience as painless as possible. Every month, but especially during National Volunteer Month in April, theirs is a devotion worth affirming.
Catherine Sigmon, who oversees volunteers at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said the job description is pure and simple: “To add a level of human touch.”
Talk with Schaefer for five minutes, listen to her story, and it’s obvious. Adding a level of human touch is what she does best.
Schaefer, 65, of Winston-Salem, was diagnosed in 2019 with lung cancer and a form of ovarian cancer. “I hit the daily double,” she said. She underwent treatment for both and went into remission. In 2021, the ovarian cancer came back. She is taking a break before resuming treatment.
Schaefer is grateful to the Novant Health medical team, and to the volunteers who gave her something more. A touch of the hand. A smile. A conversation, not just about chemo but also about family or books if Schaefer wanted to change the subject from illness.
She remembers one kind volunteer who handed out peanut butter crackers and other snacks as she underwent chemo. “She had a quiet, compassionate way about her,” Schaefer says. She remembers another good soul, renowned for playing guitar and singing oldies for patients. She can still hear him serenading patients with “Sweet Caroline” as she took chemo at 8 a.m. one day.
Schaefer had found her inspiration.
“I want to be like them,” she remembers saying to herself. “I want to touch people’s lives.”
So Schaefer shares warm blankets and advice about wigs. She bakes molasses cookies for team members. She’s set a goal of handing out guardian angel pins to every team member in the cancer institute she crosses paths with – as a patient and volunteer. She’ll stop instantly if someone wants to talk. One day, “Gianna” arrived for her first chemo treatment. Fear was written all over her face. Schaefer saw it and struck up a conversation, some of it in Spanish, trying to calm her nerves.
The piano, though, is her trademark.
One day a man came out of the radiation room, walked past Schaefer as she played and gave her a $100 bill. At first she thought he was playing a practical joke and handing her Monopoly money. When she unfolded it and realized it was the real thing, she gave it to the Novant Health Foundation and asked that it be used to help cancer patients.
Each Wednesday at 2 p.m., Schaefer begins her shift with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’.” She ends around 3 or 3:30 p.m. with a song she hopes can lift the burden of patients like her, until they meet again: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”