In response to her own inability to find the support she needed to live with her cancer diagnosis, Gloria Gutkowski founded Cancer Lifeline in 1973. With a mission to “Optimize the quality of life for all people living with cancer,” Cancer Lifeline provides emotional support, information (non-medical), and a variety of classes and programs free to people living with cancer. Services are available to patients, survivors, family members, caregivers, friends and coworkers.
If you call Cancer Lifeline’s toll-free 24-hour phone line, you will be greeted by a friendly, highly-trained volunteer. RSVP volunteer Paul Jeganathan spends one day a week taking Cancer Lifeline calls from his home.
Paul finds the work both challenging and deeply rewarding. Challenging because he prefers to interact with people face-to-face, where a gentle hand on an arm or shoulder can give comfort, and rewarding because, as he says with customary modesty, “Satisfaction comes from being helpful.” Here is how Cancer Lifeline’s Mary Ellen Shands rates Paul’s contribution: “Paul’s ability to empathize and deeply feel his callers’ experiences is profound. His ‘work ethic’ and commitment to Cancer Lifeline is amazing … we are so, so lucky to have him on our Lifeline.”
Paul was drawn to Cancer Lifeline by a need he felt to do something in memory of his niece who had recently died of ovarian cancer. While he maintains strict emotional separation when working with patients, some mornings, after a shift on the phone, Paul recalls the people he spoke with and thinks about them.
Helping people overcome overwhelming circumstances and erroneous perceptions has characterized Paul’s life. It started with himself. Born in India, Paul contracted polio at the young age of 4½. Because there was no treatment available, Paul languished in the hospital for long months, recovering slowly. When he left the hospital for home, he had braces on his legs and arms and used crutches to get around. Today, Paul is without braces, chauffeurs himself around town, and zips about in an electric wheelchair. With his typical positive attitude, Paul’s grateful the polio didn’t damage his heart and lungs.
When the time came for Paul to begin school, no school would take him because of his disability. So Paul was home schooled until he was 14. In the end, Paul graduated from college with a BA in Business Administration and, ironically, got a job as a cost accountant at the same hospital he stayed in as a child. Three and a half years later, he took a job closer to home as an office administrator for a religious organization.
In 1983 Paul immigrated to the US. He found work as a part-time bookkeeper. When he left that job for full-time work, the owner took him aside and apologized for silently underestimating his considerable abilities. Paul subsequently worked for Evergreen Hospital and Seattle Children’s Hospital, and finished his career with a 15-year stint at the UW Medical Center, retiring in 2007.
Paul defines volunteering simply as helping those in need, and as such he considers himself a lifelong volunteer. “I love people,” he says, “all people – young or old, rich or poor.” People are attracted to Paul (I think it’s the warmth of his smile), and he’s always ready to help. He cited two examples.
When he was 25, Paul met a wheelchair-bound 18-year-old young man who had contracted polio a year earlier and was learning to live with it. Paul still wore braces and used crutches, but was adept at independent living. One day the young man invited Paul into his hospital room and asked him for a demonstration of how he put his pants on. Paul, of course, complied. Another time, at the same hospital, he saw the profile of a woman who reminded him of his mother. He entered her room and told her so. She thanked him, adding that he was the first-ever non-professional to greet and visit with her during her long hospital stay.
In addition to Cancer Lifeline, Paul volunteers weekly at Seattle Children’s Hospital where he is involved in recreational therapy and inpatient rehabilitation. Paul hopes the way he manages his own disability works as an inspiration to his patients.
When not demonstrating to the world that disability is not a synonym for inability, Paul likes to read (history, biography, anthropology), listen to music (jazz and gospel), play the harmonica (he’s been playing since he was 8), and write short vignettes about his life experiences. He and his wife raised two daughters and have one grandson.