Advancing the Science

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February 14, 2020

Filling hearts instead of test tubes

By Advancing the Science contributor
Merrick Ducharme sitting on the carpeted floor in a playroom with a young boy, playing with action figures.

Editor's note: This story is not about Mayo Clinic research, but rather about a part of a researcher's life that builds hope in little hearts, and gives him joy.

It's 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and Merrick Ducharme is up to his elbows (OK, his wrists) in slime. The gooey, gluey mixture is not one Ducharme, a research assistant at Mayo Clinic, concocts in the pulmonary lab where he spends most of his day. Instead, he's mixing up the medicine at Mayo Clinic Children's Center, where he volunteers each Thursday morning. "I try to make the kids forget they're in the hospital," Ducharme tells us. "I try to make them smile."

Ducharme prepared for his research position at Carleton College, where he majored in biology. But he prepared for his volunteer position at home, where giving back was part of the Ducharme family game plan. "Our parents taught us about giving," he says. "They talked a lot about sharing your gifts." The family even started a charity together — Thanksgiving in a Bag — after noticing that a food shelf where they volunteered was low on supplies around the holiday. After creating a flyer listing items needed for a Thanksgiving meal, they distributed the fliers and encouraged people to fill a bag with the items and donate them to a food shelf. "We handed them out at church, school and to our sports teams," Ducharme says. More than 10 years after launching, Thanksgiving in a Bag is still going strong. "There have been thousands of pounds of food collected and distributed," Ducharme says.

After Ducharme told a colleague about Thanksgiving in a Bag, she told him about her experiences as a volunteer in Mayo's pediatric center. Then she encouraged him to volunteer there, too. It was an easy sell. Not only does Ducharme have a big heart, he tells us he's a big kid at heart. "I've always loved little kids," he says. "Playing with kids is an easy way to volunteer."

Two women and Merrick Ducharme, all in columbia blue volunteer jackets, poised to distribute acrylic paints from a cart full of craft materials.
Merrick Ducharme and some fellow volunteers get ready for some messy fun.

While Ducharme isn't afraid to get his hands dirty (see: slime), he's aware that his volunteer role is about more than fun and games. It's about letting kids — and their parents — know they're not alone, a way to demonstrate care and give hope. "Hope is my favorite thing about medicine, and there are all kinds of ways of giving hope at Mayo," Ducharme says. "Surgeons give hope through what they do. Volunteers give hope by being positive and optimistic, and helping patients forget why they're here."

Ducharme tells us meeting patients and their families has altered his perspective on life. "I've met people who are going through otherworldly circumstances," he says. "I met a teenager who's had 60 operations. That would be a lot of operations even for someone at the end of a long life, and he's just a kid. But he was still able to joke and laugh and be positive." Ducharme says it was "a reminder of how many things we take for granted."

Volunteering has also altered Ducharme's thoughts on the future. He left college imagining a career in neurology or psychiatry. Now, he's leaning toward pediatrics. "The kids have affected me more than I expected," he tells us. "My heart just feels full when I leave there. I look forward to it every week. I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."

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This story was originally published on In the Loop, a subscription-based newsletter and blog that gives a unique perspective on happenings at Mayo Clinic.

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