Patient-turned-volunteer offers ‘food for the soul’ during weekly rounds

Rina Cavallini knows what it’s like to be a cancer patient, but she says her experience as an Italian grandmother also comes in handy during weekly shifts as a Dana-Farber volunteer.

She spends her Wednesdays rounding infusion areas of the Yawkey Center, offering snacks and lunches to patients and their loved ones from what volunteers have dubbed “the ‘mangia’ cart.” Given Cavallini’s ethnic heritage, it’s a perfect fit.

“Food is an important way of showing love in my culture,” she says. “Volunteering has become the ultimate comfort food for my soul.”

Cavallini has been a volunteer since 2010, the same year she finished breast cancer treatment at Dana-Farber.

“Each morning I came for radiation, volunteers would greet me, answer my many questions, and offer me a bottle of water and a snack in the waiting area,” says Cavallini. “As my treatment days were winding down, I felt sad to be leaving this family of care. I couldn’t just walk out and cut this lifeline of a caring community out of my life.”

So, encouraged by a fellow volunteer, she joined their ranks. From the start, Cavallini loved the job. She could share laughs and (occasional) tears with patients, and let them know they were not alone; others were right there with a hug and some sustenance.

“Rina is an incredible volunteer – she has a tremendous capacity to give with a huge heart while never losing sight of how grateful she is for all she receives back from patient and family interactions,” says Patricia Stahl, senior manager of Volunteer Services and Programs at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “We are all so lucky to have her.”

She is the lucky one, Cavallini insists. Calling Wednesdays her “favorite day of the week,” and arriving early for most shifts to have breakfast with fellow volunteers-turned-friends.

Asked for a favorite memory with a patient, she cites one from her first year involving a young girl.

“Each time I’d offer her a snack, she’d tell me that her sister was downstairs in the cafe getting her chocolate,” Cavallini says. “This went on for a few weeks until finally I got to meet her sister. I walked into the room and she was lying right next to this patient in her bed; they were laughing and eating chocolate, looking at a magazine together. It took me a minute to realize they were identical twins, because the patient was thin and losing her hair. But they had identical laughs as they shared a funny story with me.”

Saul Wisnia
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Communications