Excluding a few vacation days here and there, 93-year-old Bob Gerlach of Mesa spent four hours each Tuesday for the last eight years being one of the first smiling faces individuals saw when walking through the doors of the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.
A member of one of the first volunteer classes at the facility when it opened in 2011, the nearly six-decade Mesa resident and World War II veteran worked the main information desk, visiting with first-time patients, escorting them to their appointments and making sure they have everything they need.
In addition to his sincere personality, Gerlach was able to connect on a deeper level with patients as a cancer survivor himself.
Gerlach was diagnosed with colon cancer 14 years ago and is now in full remission.
“It’s just a feeling of being able to communicate what I went through, the fact that I survived…(and) it’s not a hopeless process,” Gerlach said.
Before turning 93, Gerlach decided it was time to retire.
And during his last shift Aug. 20 — which also happened to be his 93rd birthday — the hospital staff celebrated Gerlach’s birthday and his extensive service as a volunteer with some cake and presents.
“It was a total surprise,” Gerlach said. “I didn’t expect any kind of a big celebration or anything.”
Angie Wiebler, volunteer program supervisor at MD Anderson, said volunteers like Gerlach are important at the facility, as patients bond with the volunteers and feel comfortable asking them for any needs they may have.
“It’s very important for our staff members to have that extra layer of folks that can help us with things from a comfort and care standpoint, offering warm blankets and having time to visit with our patients,” Wiebler said.
She said volunteers “offset some of the responsibilities so that we can really focus on the clinical needs of our patients.”
“For those of our patients that are in our My Cancer Connection Program — that actually walked a mile in our patients’ shoes, that have a journey of their own when it comes to cancer — it’s a level of support that is really like no other,” Wiebler added.
At 17, Gerlach joined the U.S. Navy and served aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific Theater. He also spent 25 years as a Presbyterian church administrator, even heading to work while battling cancer.
Once at MD Anderson, he saw volunteering at the facility as a way to give back.
“MD Anderson is known for their excellent program and I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have anything else to do, so why not come on out? So, I did,’” Gerlach said. “This came along and it just seemed like fate took over.”
Once the celebration was over, sure enough, Gerlach went back to his usual duties of running the information desk and greeting patients as they walked through the door.
Wiebler says Gerlach will be remembered for helping every person who came to the information desk and making sure everything got done — as well as his routine of having a bowl of soup at the adjacent cafe to end every shift, always serving as the last customer since the cafe closed at 3 p.m.
“I kind of have that picture in my mind, I will miss seeing that,” Wiebler said. “He’s just a staple in our environment and he will really be missed.”
“Bob is a true example of volunteerism and had a great work ethic,” she added. “We all can learn so much from someone like Bob.”