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Survivor to volunteer

Walter Hawkins made a deal with God on his way into an operating room.

The incident happened 20 years ago when Hawkins had prostate cancer and was fighting for his life with a radical procedure.

“I kinda made a promise that if I survived, I’d give back and then I forgot about it,” Hawkins said.

He was 50 years old and a Long Island, New York school principal at the time. When he retired and moved to Bath, Hawkins decided to make good on his 20-year-old promise.

He spends every Monday morning at the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center at Vidant Beaufort Hospital. Walter said the volunteer program administrators tried to talk him out of working in the cancer center, suggesting volunteer opportunities that might be less emotionally draining, but he insisted on working with chemotherapy patients in oncology.

Some of the days are hard on Hawkins. Seeing young adults fighting cancer always has an effect on the 70-year-old.

“You’re seeing so much. You’re seeing your community when they’re sick,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins never knows the condition of the patients, but he protects the privacy of those he helps and never talks about the patients and their care.

His goal is to help the patients and families in any way he can. He fetches drinks and meals; offers blankets; and helps the staff in any way he can.

“I like bringing something positive to a family who’s going through a difficult time in their lives,” Hawkins said. “I try to be a good listener … and all of a sudden, you’ve got a conversation going and that’s what it’s all about.”

He said he constantly circulates between the family in the waiting room and the patients receiving treatment.

When Hawkins notices a patient is feeling down, he tells them he knows how they feel. He shares his own experience and tells patients that he is a 20-year survivor.

Hawkins also reminds the patients of the progress he has seen in cancer research since he was a patient.

“It’s a better world than when I had treatment and people are living longer lives,
he said.

Hawkins still remembers the fear and loneliness of hospital stays.

He also remembers the kindness of the hospital staff, especially those who would go out of their way to make him comfortable.

“It felt so wonderful. Like someone cared,” Hawkins said. “And that’s what we do here.”