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by Dagny Stuart | Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 9:04 AM
Nearly every week since 1988, cancer patients and families visiting Vanderbilt University Medical Center have been able to count on a comforting routine — at least one morning per week they are greeted by the same smiling volunteer who dispenses a dose of friendship along with coffee, snacks and advice about how to navigate the sprawling Medical Center campus.
Margaret “Peggy” Henry Joyce is about to mark 25 years as a volunteer for the Cancer Center, making her one of the longest-serving and best-loved individuals who donates time to assist Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (VICC) patients and families.
“People who come into the cancer clinic have been diagnosed with cancer, which is a scary thing, and anything that you can do to make it more personal for the patients is important,” Joyce said.
A Nashville native and Vanderbilt University graduate, Joyce has been a fixture at VUMC since her husband’s cancer diagnosis in 1980. Harry Joyce was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the young couple was stationed in North Africa and later lived in London before returning to Nashville, where they raised their sons.
The couple had been married for nearly 30 years when Harry was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. He underwent several different therapy regimens at VUMC, but each time the cancer would return and eventually he underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Despite the intensive treatments, he succumbed to cancer in the spring of 1981.
“In spite of the difficulties of that year, it gave Harry and me a year that we wouldn’t have had and that was important. That’s what I tried to communicate to the doctors,” Peggy Joyce remembers.
She also remembers the dark, cramped offices in Medical Center North where cancer patients were treated at the time.
“There was the nicest, most wonderful group of people — everyone from the receptionist to the cleaning people were super wonderful. It made you want to do something to help them have a more attractive place to work.”
In memory of Harry Joyce and in tribute to the medical professionals who cared for him, Peggy Joyce, along with her mother, Kathryn Craig Henry, made a gift for the creation of a new cancer clinic at Vanderbilt — the Henry-Joyce Cancer Clinic.
In 1993, Vanderbilt officials and community leaders broke ground for an official cancer center and Joyce was one of those wielding a shovel. Over the years she and her family have continued to provide financial support for what is now Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.
She also became one of the founding members of the Cancer Center’s Board of Overseers.
Hal Moses, M.D., the first director of the Cancer Center, remembers Joyce’s contributions as a leader and adviser.
“Any cancer center really needs community volunteers and Peggy was very free with her time, advice and support throughout the whole process,” said Moses, who is now Director Emeritus of VICC.
Joyce decided that it was equally important to volunteer her time for patients and families, a legacy of volunteerism handed down by her mother.
“My mother and all those women of her generation volunteered, so I’ve done volunteer things all of my life. In the second World War, I was rolling bandages for the Red Cross. I was probably 12 or 13 years old and was rolling bandages and knitting cuffs for the RAF (Royal Air Force),” Joyce explained.
Today, she keeps coffee pots filled in the Cancer Center waiting rooms, delivers warm blankets to patients undergoing therapy and drops by to chat with patients or family members.
While she downplays her role as a longtime volunteer, Moses said Joyce knows how the clinic is supposed to operate and she serves as an advocate for the staff and the patients.
“I think it means a lot to the oncologists and the nurses to have that kind of support, and I know it means a lot to the patients to have someone looking out for their interests, keeping tabs on who may have been waiting too long,” said Moses.
Joyce maintains she’s the one reaping the biggest reward.
“You meet the most wonderful people; one patient had escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, There are just interesting people with interesting stories. I enjoy doing it and I feel like it helps.”
Dagny Stuart, (615) 936-7245
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