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Gratitude inspires 
a healthier future

Volunteers Bring Welcome Wags and Comfort

After multiple bouts of cancer, grueling chemotherapy, radiation, dialysis, and a kidney transplant, the last place you would expect Bill Wilson to spend his free time would be at a hospital.

Yet Bill’s experience as a patient is exactly what led him back to Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in 2019 as a volunteer. Bill and his wife, Ellie, bring their dog, Scout, to visit patients at Siteman every week.

Scout, an 11-year-old English Springer Spaniel, is a Duo Dogs touch therapy dog, specially trained to ease stress and bring comfort to patients. The Duo Dogs Touch Therapy program trains and certifies volunteers and their personal dogs to visit hospitals, treatment centers, and residential facilities throughout the St. Louis area. The Foundation for Barnes-Jewish Hospital provides annual support to Duo Dogs, a national non-profit organization, so patients at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Siteman can receive comfort from therapy dogs year-round. 

Bill recalls several visits from therapy dogs during his lengthy chemotherapy infusions at Siteman. “Pets always make you feel good, and the dogs broke up the monotony of sitting in the chair for so long,” he says. “Dogs are therapeutic, and you can tell Scout’s visit brightens other patients’ days. I received such great care at Siteman, so I wanted to give back.”

Scout’s soft brown fur and friendly face melt away stress in patients, family members, and visitors alike.

“Some people just want to give Scout a quick pet, and others want to spend 15 minutes with her,” Bill says. “When we’re in the chemotherapy infusion area, sometimes I share my experiences with patients and show them there is light at the end of the tunnel. We want to give people hope.”

“We show people they can get through it,” Ellie adds. “Volunteering with Scout is the least we can do to help others.”

The Wilsons’ generosity as volunteers is especially meaningful after the many health issues Bill has faced.

The Challenging Journey to Gratitude

In 2016, Bill was diagnosed with sarcoma, a cancer that begins in soft tissue and bones. A few months after Bill had surgery and radiation to treat the cancerous growth in his thigh muscle, doctors found he also had prostate cancer. Another surgery followed.

The next summer was even more challenging when the sarcoma spread to Bill’s lung. Every three weeks, Bill received chemotherapy three times a week for at least eight hours a day at Siteman. Touch therapy dog visits during his infusion made his experience more tolerable.

“We were at Siteman all the time,” Ellie recalls. “But Bill was so calm, stoic, and powered through.”

In August 2017, Bill’s kidney function began to rapidly decline, so he halted chemotherapy early. By December, he started in-home peritoneal dialysis through a catheter in his abdomen that he continued every day for the next six years. During that time, Bill received attentive and exceptional support from the nurses, staff, and physicians at Forest Park Kidney Center, affiliated with Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University.

As Bill continued to struggle with health issues in 2020, he received a surprising diagnosis: Li-Fraumeni Syndrome (LFS), a gene mutation that makes him more susceptible to a myriad of cancers including sarcoma, prostate, breast, pancreatic, melanoma, and brain tumors.

At last, there was a reason for Bill’s gauntlet of cancers. “The diagnosis was a blessing and a curse—but knowledge is power,” Bill says. Siteman doctors now carefully monitor Bill with a close surveillance protocol to watch for any new malignancies.

In 2022, Bill’s prostate cancer recurred, and he was treated with radiation. Today, Bill has no evidence of cancer.

“My oncologist, Dr. Brian Van Tine, MD, PhD, says I’m the outlier everyone hopes they will be,” Bill says. “The fact that the metastatic sarcoma disappeared is unusual. I’m so fortunate to have Siteman’s expertise right here. So much was beyond my control, so we just trusted the medical team.”

A Transplant Turning Point  

Although Bill’s cancer was in remission, his kidneys had failed. Finally in 2023, Bill was moved to active status on a kidney transplant list at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

Several friends and family members came forward as living kidney donors for Bill, which started a cascading benefit for Bill and two other patients waiting for a kidney. On Jan. 9, 2024, Bill participated in a three-donor/recipient paired kidney exchange at the Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Transplant Center. This “kidney exchange” is a transplant option for patients with a living donor who is not compatible. The paired kidney exchange connects pairs of compatible recipients and donors and allows recipients to receive better-matched kidneys. This option also helps other recipients who otherwise would continue to wait for a matched donor.

“The kidney exchange helped me feel better about accepting a kidney because the process also helped two other people receive a transplant,” Bill says. “What bigger gift can someone give you?”

Bill is grateful for the nurses and physicians who made his recovery and transition home easier after the transplant.

“The nursing care was fantastic,” Bill says. “They educate you and give you everything you need to be successful when you go home.”

Ellie marvels at the improvement in Bill’s quality of life. “The transplant was the miracle I hoped it would be for him. Today, there are no brackets on what Bill can and can’t do. Now, we can plan for the future.”

Because Bill had a catheter in his abdomen for peritoneal dialysis, he hasn’t been able to swim in a pool or ocean for the past six years. This summer, he’s excited to splash in the ocean in North Carolina once again.

“We’re so fortunate to have such a great research hospital right in our backyard in St. Louis,” Bill says. “The Barnes-Jewish Hospital team saved my life.”

Scout Inspires Other Furry, Friendly Volunteers

Even a kidney transplant couldn’t keep Bill, Ellie, and Scout away from volunteering for long. Just two months after Bill’s transplant, the dedicated Duo team was back at Siteman to brighten other patients’ days.

Scout’s touch therapy visits have had a ripple effect. When the Wilsons returned to volunteering at Siteman after the pandemic hiatus, they ran into a former patient who remembered Scout. “She still had a photo of Scout on her phone,” Ellie says. “Because of her experience with Scout, she got her dog trained as a touch therapy dog, too. We’ve gotten to know some lovely people from all different backgrounds and from all over the region through volunteering.”

Written by Joyce Romine

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