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Gift gives cancer patients exercise alternative and break from boredom

Melissa Varner
October 08, 2018
Stationary bikes with a view
The donated bikes allow patients to exercise with a panoramic view of the Ashley River.

You have to be pretty special to have a fan club – especially one made up of teenagers.

“Understand Mr. Johnson, he has quite a fan club,” coworker Cindy Branscome explained. “He's adored by many. He makes his rounds up and down the breezeway on a daily basis to make sure that he speaks to all the students, says ‘Hello,’ and makes it a point to be involved in their lives.”

Brian Johnson teaches high schoolers physical education and health at the Charleston County School of the Arts (SOA). He also coaches boys cross country for Academic Magnet. 

Around this time last year, Johnson was making his rounds on the seventh floor of Ashley River Tower (ART) instead of the breezeway at SOA. His leukemia had come back; he was at ART for more chemotherapy six months after having a bone marrow transplant.

“I was in the hospital for a few stints of 23 to 24 days each where my only way of being active was basically walking laps around the ART building,” Johnson said. “So I walked a lot laps, some of those laps I was towing my IV pole with me. There weren't a whole lot of opportunities for exercise.”

Clinical Staff Leader Jessica Shaw says patients get bored in their rooms or walking in circles.

Brian Johnson attended the check presentation via Facetime
Brian Johnson attended the check presentation via Facetime while recovering from a bone marrow transplant.

Staying in their room gets really dull, they need to be active, keep their strength up,” Shaw said. She and the other nurses had been working on an alternative. Shaw had applied for and won a $500 grant from the Get Well Network to go towards the purchase of an exercise bicycle. Another $2,000 came from Jog for Johnson, a mile-long run around the SOA campus organized by Johnson’s students, athletes, and fellow PE teacher, Cindy Branscome.

“When he got sick that was devastating to all of us,” Branscome said. “And the students immediately wanted to do something to help. It was a huge success.”

The donation inspired Shaw and her team to redouble their efforts. She started researching stationary bicycles and enlisted the help of Hollings Cancer Center board member Ben Hagood in getting approval and additional funding for the bikes. Hagood also had a unique perspective as a former patient of the seventh floor of Ashley River Tower.

“When I was in there, I really wanted to keep exercise up, as best I could,” Hagood said. “And so I would put my mask on and go out in the hall and walk the length of the hospital floor in circles, one big long circle after another.”

Hagood is a survivor of multiple myeloma. Last spring, he was getting ready to leave for a sailing trip to the Caribbean when a blood test revealed a new cancer diagnosis: acute leukemia. Instead of sailing, he started treatment – three months of chemo followed by a stem cell transplant that kept him confined to the seventh floor of ART for about a month. During his stay, he asked his nurses what he could do for exercise besides walking the hall. That’s when he learned they were raising money to buy stationary bikes for patients to ride.

“I just started thinking, gosh, we need to figure out how to make this happen,” Hagood said. “My wife was teasing me. She said, ‘You’re stuck in here looking for things to do.’”

When Hagood got out of the hospital, he got to work.

“I had been out of the hospital three weeks at most, I had lost all my hair… and I was still wearing a mask and gloves when I went out in public to avoid infection,” Hagood recalls. “I was not able to attend the fall meeting of the Hollings Cancer Center Advisory Board but I came in at the end, took off my mask, said hello to all my colleagues on the board and told them about my experience and the need for getting some stationary bikes.”

His plea led to approval for the bikes and even individual contributions from some of the board members, coming to an additional $2,500. So far, Shaw has placed two bikes in the seventh floor family waiting room. Patients who ride them get a panoramic view of the Ashley River and Charleston Harbor. Eventually, Shaw would like to add a third bike to the east side, along with a small gym for patients.

Both Hagood and Johnson credit exercise with making a positive impact on their recovery.

“I think it helps when you deal with a blood cancer, you get your blood moving … you got some basic exercise going on,” Hagood said. “It's got to be healthy.”

“I think that being physically active, being conscious of that during my treatment definitely helped,” said Johnson. “I think my doctors would agree on that.”

They also make it clear, this was a team effort.

“Between the students and Cindy, they pretty much did everything,” Johnson continued. “I didn’t really have much to do with it.”

“Jessica and the other nurses deserve the credit,” Hagood said. “They're incredible.”

About the Author

Melissa Varner

Keywords: Cancer, Thank You Notes