Ten years ago, after a successful career as a corporate executive, Dunwoody resident Chris Cox retired and soon found herself in a bed at Northside Hospital recovering from breast cancer surgery.

Carol Niemi is a marketing consultant who lives on the Dunwoody-Sandy Springs line and writes about people whose lives inspire others. Contact her at worthknowingnow@gmail.com.

Filled with fear and uncertainty about her future, she was visited by a former patient who had survived the same surgery. Dressed in a Northside Hospital Auxiliary blue volunteer’s coat, Cox’s visitor answered her questions and allayed her fears.

Thus began a whole lot of healing beyond cancer. When she felt better, Cox began spending four hours a week doing for other breast cancer patients what had been done for her. Gradually, those hours became part of her own recovery as well.

“When I retired, all of a sudden, I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I was pretty lost and didn’t know what to do with myself.”

Volunteering at Northside gave her what she was missing.

“The doctors’ job is to fix things. We help patients get through the aftermath,” she said. “As a volunteer who visits with breast cancer patients the day after their surgery, I’m the face of survivorship.”

And the leadership skills she had honed during her long career didn’t go unnoticed. Soon, she was asked to join the auxiliary board.

“When I got the call to join the board, I was like, ‘OK. I’m back in the groove,’” she said. “It became part of my reinvention after a busy work life.”

As a volunteer in the auxiliary, Cox is not unique. Patients and visitors at the hospital would be surprised at how often the person greeting them in the lobby, pushing their wheelchair, delivering flowers, staffing the gift shops, bringing in therapy dogs, taking baby pictures, driving courtesy carts and offering information and comfort to patients and their families is a retired corporate executive. Others are teachers, artists, veterans, homemakers, high-school students and more.

Though from diverse backgrounds, they all seem to have one thing in common: they were inspired by the kindness of other volunteers when they or their loved ones were patients.

Members of the Northside Auxiliary in a 2015 publicity photo. (Special)

“Most of us who volunteer have experienced being in the hospital and had someone do something that changed our life,” said Vicki Atkinson, Auxiliary board president and breast cancer survivor.

As personal as volunteering is, the Auxiliary volunteers are essential to the overall operation of the hospital.

Formed in 1969, the year before Northside Hospital officially opened, the auxiliary is celebrating 50 years of providing services. Since its founding, auxiliary members have volunteered more than 2.3 million hours and raised more than $20 million, all of which is used to benefit the hospital.

The auxiliary also operates Camp Hope for cancer survivors, the Special Projects Fund, which allocates $200,000 a year to fund hospital wish list requests, $40,000 for advanced training scholarships for hospital employees and volunteers and the Educational Grant Fund for teenage volunteers in the summer “Volunteen” program.

Other projects the auxiliary has funded include playground equipment for the Children’s Developmental Center, the Serenity Garden, a security system for newborns, CAD digital mammography equipment, a mobile mammography truck, PCI (angioplasty) equipment and a daycare center bus.
Besides fundraising, one of the most valuable things auxiliary members do is free up the staff.

“We’re everywhere in our blue coats,” said Atkinson. “As greeters, we’re usually the first people patients see and also the last because we wheel them out.”

The auxiliary has been celebrating its 50th anniversary all year through a series of events. One of them included fielding a team on July 4 that “ran” the Peachtree Road Race, also celebrating its 50th anniversary. For some of the team in their 60s, 70s and 80s, it was their first Peachtree ever.
But not all auxiliary members who ran the Peachtree are corporate retirees.

One of them, Sonia Ray, is a young mother who lives in Rex, about 45 minutes south of Sandy Springs. A two-time breast cancer survivor, Ray says “paying it forward” is proof her “battle was not wasted.”

In addition to counseling patients, she has started a nonprofit to help fund services for breast cancer patients who live in her underserved area.

The auxiliary has a tagline: “Be the Difference.” Members say you can be the difference by giving just four hours a week.

For information, visit northsideatlaux.com.

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