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Volunteering at the Cancer Therapy Research Center: Sharon Kwee Plays Violin For Patients

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Author: Charlotte Anthony | Category: Community Outreach | Meet The Researcher | Biomedical Engineering (M.S.) | November 18, 2015

Tell me about your background and how it led you to your current degree?

My mom always encouraged my interest in math and science. Prior to attending Health Careers High School (a Northside San Antonio magnet school), I attended "PREP"- Pre-Freshman Engineering Program, a summer program dedicated to giving kids a head start and an engaging introduction to high school math, engineering, and even some programming. 

It was a great experience. That, combined with my amazing biology and math teachers at Health Careers High School really influenced and directed my interest into science and later engineering.

I earned my Bachelor's of Science degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and when I graduated, I knew I wanted to expand and continue my education; when I found the Master's Program in Biomedical Engineering at UTHSCSA, I saw it as a new direction from which I could build off of my undergraduate education. 

During my Master's program, I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate Introductory Biomedical Engineering class at UTSA, and I really enjoyed every aspect- preparing lectures, talking with the students, leading review sessions and coming up with in-class demonstrations. That teaching assistantship is one of the primary reasons I decided to pursue my Ph.D.

As for music, I started playing violin and piano at age 5. I participated in orchestras, music festivals, took private lessons, and I performed competitively as well as just for fun. I was a three-time All-State Musician and was awarded the Excellent Achievement award by the Mayor of San Antonio. 

I've also played as a soloist alongside my sister with the San Antonio Symphony. Even in graduate school, I played (and still play) violin in the University of Texas at San Antonio Orchestra because I enjoy playing big musical works and I want to keep up my technique.

How you got involved with volunteering at Cancer Therapy Research Center (CTRC)? 

One of my family members was a patient at CTRC and had suggested I look into volunteering there. 

At the time (about three or so years ago), I was looking for something to do with my time, and since I already had clinical experience from when I worked at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Surgical Center as a Patient Care Attendant and Lab Technician, I thought it would be a good use of my skills. 

Even though the two jobs ended up not being as similar as I thought, I ended up staying as a Volunteer because I had already built relationships with some of the staff at CTRC; I also found that I could occasionally put my musical skills to use as well.

What do you do at CTRC? 

As a Medical Oncology Clinic Volunteer (MOCV), my role includes aiding the nurses and patients in whatever way I can: 

For example, I play a supporting role for the nurses by assembling patient "packets"- little baggies that contain sodium chloride, heparin, gauze, alcohol prep pads, and other necessary items they would need to give a patient their treatment. 

The many treatment rooms at CTRC all need different supplies, so by making these packets, volunteers help to streamline the treatment process and provide support to the nurses carrying out the doctors' orders. 

With the patients, I usually just try to make them comfortable by offering refreshments, warm blankets, or, if I happen to have my violin that day, I'll play a few songs for the patients after I finish my duties. 

One year in December, I organized a string quartet and we came just to play Christmas Carols for the patients and their families. They really liked it and I hope to do that again this year.

Why do you like volunteering at CTRC?

I like volunteering at CTRC because I have built relationships with the staff- Mary Jackson, the Director of the Patient and Family Services in the Health and Wellness Center, Gary Guzner, Senior Administrative Assistant at CTRC, and many other nurses in the treatment rooms. 

I also like knowing that I am doing something, even if it's just a little bit, to help these patients have a better treatment experience, and, in the times that I'm playing violin, to help them take their mind off of it.

Why is volunteering important? 

Volunteering is a great way to meet and bond with all sorts of people- whether they are staff members, patients, or other volunteers. 

I think a lot of people have this notion that the purpose of volunteering is to do some big work that will make a big difference, but I've found that volunteering is actually about doing small, little things that make small differences that hopefully can add up into something meaningful. 

I was talking to another volunteer, and she said that at first, she would try to talk to all the patients and get them to talk and unload all their problems with her, but some patients (many patients) don't want to do that- they just want to go there for their treatment and get out. 

So instead, she would just offer them a drink, or a snack or a warm blanket, and that's how she could help them in that moment- not by doing some big grand gesture, but by doing something small.

Do you think more graduate students should volunteer? Why or why not?

I think the question about volunteering, as it pertains to graduate students, is if graduate students have time to volunteer? 

I have volunteered throughout my Master's education, and now I'm still volunteering as a Doctoral student. 

When I volunteer, I'm not there to accrue hours or try to stretch out my time so I can say "I've volunteered x many hours."

I'll volunteer for an hour or so each time, and I work really fast to get the work done efficiently. I hope more graduate students can realize that volunteering doesn't take much time or skill-I do it because enjoy making connections with the patients and staff. 

It also really helps that many of the nurses say thank you for volunteering; it lets me know that my efforts are being appreciated.

To see a video with Sharon, see below.

This article is part of the "Meet The Researcher" series which showcases researchers at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.  

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