John Burnett: Kindness Rules the Day

An Ashe County man witnesses random acts of kindness daily – both as a deliberate and often anonymous giver and as an ever-grateful receiver – while in Chapel Hill for the treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

John Burnett:  Kindness Rules the Day   click to enlarge John Burnett

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047,

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – John Burnett fully “gets” the power of kindness, as both a deliberate giver and as an unexpected, but ever-grateful receiver.

“The least expensive thing in the world is a word of kindness,” said John, 64, of Jefferson, N.C., in Ashe County.  “It is a most individual thing.  And it quickly gets to be a habit without much practice.  More should try it.”

In his days of full-time work as an independent elder care coordinator, John lived in Chapel Hill, “just up 86 towards Hillsborough, before I-40 came through and the country went away.”  His return trip to Chapel Hill was unplanned.  

Since mid-December, John has been treated at the North Carolina Cancer Hospital for Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma (also known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma), a cancer of the lymphoid tissue which includes the lymph nodes, the spleen and other organs of the immune system.  

John’s treatment involved aggressive chemotherapy delivered during a week-long hospitalization followed by two weeks of recovery, follow-up blood tests and observation, before the cycle repeated, six times in total.

“I asked my oncologist – Dr. Hendrik van Deventer – for the most aggressive treatment they have and then to go one step further,” said John, mincing no words and delivering them with measured cadence in his trademark calm, soft voice.

“There have been side effects (from the chemotherapy), but not unexpected ones,” said John of the fatigue that has zapped his energy and made him a little less stable on his feet than he’d like. “I had a small gas tank to begin with, and I think it got smaller.  And I don’t particularly enjoy having a walker as a companion.”

But the side effects haven’t interfered with the kindness John witnesses — and fosters — around him.  

“My medical care at UNC has been nothing but excellent in every respect,” John said.  “And the kindness, I see it every day, all around me, and in many ways.

“For example, Dr. Marco Aleman was my internist when I lived in Chapel Hill years ago and I also helped some of his older patients find care they needed to continue living independently in their own homes. I haven’t been his patient for years, yet he somehow found out I was hospitalized and he came to visit.  Members of his staff visited, too.”

And following his release from the hospital after his first week of chemotherapy, John and a wheelchair were not enjoying a healthy relationship in his quest to get a bite to eat while waiting for his prescriptions to be filled at the in-hospital pharmacy.  An anonymous angel came to the rescue.

“I don’t know his name, but I think he was on the Life Flight team,” John said.  “I know he had wings.  He pushed me across the cancer hospital lobby, into the next building, onto the elevator and up to the cafeteria.  Once there, he bought my lunch. I was absolutely touched that someone I didn’t know would be so kind.”   

During his treatment, John has stayed at SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.  It has been a godsend for John, a single man who lives alone in a remote locale.

But John has given as good — or better — as he’s gotten when it comes to kindness.

“When I came here I felt like a little lost puppy,” said Jordan Sanderson, 24, of Newport, N.C., who stayed at Family House seven weeks as primary caregiver for her father, Adam Sanderson, whose precarious health was touch-and-go before he recovered enough to return home April 29.

Then Jordan met John.  

“For starters, John is an excellent listener and a constant inspirational encourager,” said Jordan, who believes being laid-off from her job as a bank teller in Morehead City allowed her to be present for her Dad.  “John helped me put things in a view I could see.  

“I knew my Dad was sick, but not how sick. John was always telling me to take one day at a time.  I came to rely on him as a wise uncle or maybe a sage grandfather, but I don’t know how old he is, and I don’t want to insult him.”

John said the hardest part of the journey has been accepting help from other people.

“I’ve had to realize and accept there are just some things I can’t do right now like I used to,” John said.  “But I haven’t had time or energy to become anything but appreciative.”

John looks forward to returning to his mountain-top retreat and getting back to the antiques business he had to abruptly close when illness intervened.  

“I’ll miss being at Family House, the friends I’ve made, the good meals — prepared by volunteers — we’ve shared,  the entertainment after dinner, especially the guitars and the sing-alongs,” said John, who plays the guitar and sings.  

“But the mountains are calling, and I intend to get lots older than 64.”

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