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Charlotte Ladd is ‘once in a lifetime’ volunteer

November 7, 2022

Charlotte Ladd. Photo by Erin O. Smith.

Charlotte Ladd’s work history has been a series of serendipitous opportunities ranging from investment banking to oncology nursing to teaching immigrant nurses in Florida. But it’s her work as a volunteer at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center that has brought her the greatest joy.

Ladd volunteers on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the waiting room of the Henry-Joyce Cancer Clinic at Vanderbilt-Ingram where she prepares coffee, makes colorful cancer awareness ribbons, and most importantly, helps patients and visitors find up-to-date resources in the Patient and Family Resource Center.

“If I could have designed my perfect job on the planet, working in the Patient and Family Resource Center is it,” she said.

Patients touch her heart, but so do family members who are trying to hold everything together for their loved one who has been diagnosed with cancer, she said.

Ladd recalls the “exhausted” wife of a patient new to Nashville who came into the resource center and burst into tears. “I turned the focus to her as a caregiver. I asked her if she had a primary care physician, and she said she hadn’t had time. I suggested that she find a doctor, that she should have a relationship that’s about her, not being solely defined as the caregiver for her husband,” she said. “I encouraged her to make a list of things that people could help her with, that when people offer to do something for you, they genuinely want to help. We talked about some of the basic principles of caregiving — that she has to learn how to say ‘no,’ but also how to say ‘yes.’ We have a lot of literature about being a caregiver, about if you’re running on empty, you’ll be of no use to your family member or yourself.”

Julie Bulger, manager of Patient- and Family-Centered Care for the Cancer Center, said Ladd is a “once in a lifetime” volunteer who is proactive, takes great ownership over her volunteer role and is diligent in keeping updated resources for visitors. 

“She has a genuine rapport with our patients, with a special passion for connecting with and reminding caregivers to take gentle care also,” Bulger said. “A few years ago, one of our patients was so appreciative of Charlotte’s kind ways, he came back with his guitar and played a special song for her.”

Ladd began her career in the finance world. The Rochester, New York, native had planned to pursue a PhD in medieval history, but ended up working at Yale University’s investment office, then for City Bank and Morgan Stanley in New York City where she oversaw the futures desk for their institutional investment clients. 

She took a year off, moved to Florida with her husband, then Morgan Stanley called and asked her to move to London, where she stayed for three years.

Back in Florida she volunteered at a hospice, which inspired her to obtain a nursing degree.

“What I observed is that nurses seemed to be doing the kind of work that really touched me, that really seemed to touch their patients. I had worked on Wall Street with the left side of my brain and thought I’d really like to do something where I was much more involved in reaching out to people. It’s a terrible cliché, but it’s true.”

Ladd, a breast cancer survivor, became a registered nurse in 2006 when she was 50, taking care of patients with cancer.

“Oncology nursing was perfect because of the enormous complexity of the disease and managing the chemotherapy treatments, then the side effects of chemo. It appealed to the side of me that had enjoyed working on Wall Street. It’s complex and requires a great deal of depth as well as breadth of understanding of what’s going on. At the same time, it captured the essence of nursing, which is caring for people and developing a relationship with both the patients and their families,” she said.

But Ladd, well into her 50s, found that nursing was “bloody hard physical work,” and at 61 she obtained her PhD in nursing. Teaching at two Florida universities, her students were mostly immigrant practicing nurses with associate degrees who were coming back to get a bachelor’s degree. Many were working full time and going to school full time. Many had complicated family situations. “It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve done in my life, helping these young nurses who hoped to go on to become nurse practitioners.”

During a visit with her niece in Nashville in 2017, Ladd and her husband decided to leave Florida and move to Nashville. Instead of working, she chose to volunteer at Vanderbilt-Ingram.

“To me, this is everything I loved about being a nurse and none of what I didn’t like. But I’m not here as a registered nurse. I’m here as me, Charlotte Ladd. All I have to do is listen.

“I don’t want to get between the patients and their doctors and nurses and pharmacists, but I want to encourage them to get a referral to a dietitian if they’re having trouble eating or suggest if they’re experiencing anxiety, that they have that conversation with their doctor. Part of my job is to make sure they don’t get on the internet and start looking at Dr. Google, because at the very best, it might frighten the crap out of them, and at the very worst, they might find advice from a source that could interfere with their ability to get good health care from their physician or nurse at the Cancer Center,” she said.

“My goal is to find out what they have on their minds and give them information their doctor would want them to have from the National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, American Society of Clinical Oncology or Gilda’s Club — something authoritative and up to date,” she said.

Ladd said when Vanderbilt-Ingram couldn’t have volunteers on site during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she jokingly asked if she could write a check to Vanderbilt-Ingram that they could use to pay her a salary, so she’d be considered an employee and could continue to help patients and their families.

“I’d pay to do this job. It scratches the itch. People have such complicated lives, and if I can sort of untie the knot for one day for one person, then hallelujah.”