Former Brain Tumor Patient and Biology Professor Has Helping Others Down to a Science

Mayo volunteer, Bill Wellnitz, visits with patients like Anika Geibel two mornings a week on the 16th floor of the Mayo Building in Rochester.In the summer of 2013, Anika Geibel was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a type of brain tumor. She was just 7 1/2 years old. The diagnosis turned her life — and the lives of her family members — upside down. "We had been medically evacuated from Africa (where Anika was born and raised) and nothing seemed 'normal,'" Anika's mom, Rena Geibel, tells us. But during Anika's two years of treatment, the Geibels would eventually find "consistency and something 'normal' at Mayo" in routines beyond tests and procedures, feeding tubes and wheelchairs. On Mondays, for example, Anika "knew she would see Bill."

"Bill" is Bill Wellnitz, who visits with children like Anika two mornings a week on the 16th floor of the Mayo Building in Rochester. "I'm mainly supposed to pass out books to patients," he tells us of his role, "but I try to interact with both kids and parents in a number of different ways." One way is through science. The retired biology professor cooks up "simple experiments" that "help kids understand a little bit of science" while they're waiting for their appointments. The distraction helps make "a less-than-stellar situation bearable," Bill tells us. And it "makes a new, different, strange environment seem a bit more welcoming." Sometimes, the tricks of his trade even work like magic. "Doing science helps me forget about what is going to happen" during a medical visit or procedure, Anika told her mother, "and puts my mind on something else."

Bill knows better than most how important that is. He's a brain tumor survivor himself. "Bill is able to tap into his own experience as a patient to relate to what the patients and their families are going through," Becky Hynes, coordinator for Mayo Clinic's Volunteer Programs, tells us. And Bill's experiences as a patient have motivated some of his (many) other volunteer commitments. He serves as "water boy" (his term) or "Master Waterer" (as the director of Hope Lodge calls him) at the American Cancer Society's Hope Lodge in Rochester. (He stayed at the organization's Boston location when he was receiving treatment back in 2010.) He keeps the facility's four gardens hydrated during the summer months, and visits with residents while he's there.

Bill also helps Brains Together for a Cure with a number of activities, including the organization's annual 5K walk each fall. He and Anika were able to spend time together at the event in 2014, when they tried out some new science "goodies" before the walk. You can see some of the "goodies" Bill shared with Anika, and hear her talk about what his visits meant to her, in a video Anika created:

When asked what visits like those mean to him, Bill says it's "hard to find the right words." But he gave us three pretty good ones. Being able to help patients gives him "pleasure, gratitude and joy," he says. "Knowing that I can help someone else by giving of myself is what volunteering is all about." (We couldn't have said it better.)

If you'd like a little more "pleasure, gratitude and joy" in your life, Mayo has volunteer opportunities in 38 service areas. And you can always volunteer to leave a comment below before using the social media tools share this story with others.