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Once a month, Connie Lacaillade meets with a handful of friends by the gift shop in the Dana building lobby. They fill two carts with 100 brightly colored goodie bags and wheel the parcels of cheer through elevators and corridors to Brigham and Women's Hospital. There, they deliver them to DFCI patients on the fifth and sixth floors.
The Friends of Dana-Farber started this kind act in the days when the Institute had inpatient beds, with small favors placed on patients' trays during major holidays. When the beds moved to BWH in the mid-1990s, the project ended. Lacaillade, a Friends' member, learned of the original gesture and was inspired to launch a similar, but larger, effort in the fall of 2002. She is now joined by the project's co-chair, Lauren Frei.
Although the contents of the gift bags vary somewhat from month to month, a typical selection might include a deck of cards, a tin of hard candy, hand cream, a crossword puzzle book, and a seasonal favor (last month, a floral notepad and matching pen; this month, a ceramic flowerpot and packet of seeds), and a book. They alternate Surviving Cancer, by the late DFCI patient Margie Levine, with a different inspirational volume on hope or courage every other month.
The Friends fund the endeavor, and the women who volunteered for April's distribution all agreed the cost of each bag is "money well spent," considering the happiness it brings.
"This project helps us remember our mission - reaching out to our patients and their families," says Lacaillade. "We [the Friends] host many fundraisers throughout the year, but I feel it is the human contact with our patients that reminds us why we are all so committed to this important volunteer work in the first place."
This is one of many "bag" efforts under way for patients and family members at Dana-Farber, organized by the Friends, other volunteer groups, or through Institute programs.
As DFCI is short on storage space, Friends' members put the bags together at home and bring them in by car. Delivery times rotate in order to brighten the day for as many people as possible. On one recent visit, three women were spreading the joy along with Lacaillade and Frei: Cheryl Eckel, Marcia Gorgone, and Joanne Marshall. The volunteers are careful to use antibacterial gel on their hands and to don masks and gloves when giving out the gifts. For safety reasons, deliveries are made by nurses on units where patients have lowered immune systems.
Each bag-bearer takes a few moments to chat with recipients, and Marshall is usually the last one to finish. Although they all have kind words to offer, fellow deliverers call her a "natural." A nine-year survivor of ovarian cancer, she leaves behind an additional gift: hope.
After making the rounds at Brigham and Women's, the group heads to DFCI infusion rooms or to the waiting room in the Gillette Center for Women's Cancers on Dana 9. No matter what surprises their bags hold in any given month, patients are delighted to see the Friends and the crisp crepe-paper-wrapped presents.
Eckel, who used to volunteer with another organization, feels the hours spent at the Institute with patients make more of a difference.
"They are always appreciative," says Frei (daughter-in-law of DFCI Physician-in-Chief Emeritus Emil Frei, MD). "We receive grateful smiles from the patients and from the nursing staff, too."
Leslie Prowda is the 2014-15 chair of the Friends’ Patient Gift Bags Program.
This story first appeared in the May 11, 2004 issue of Inside the Institute.