Vegas People and Jobs: Volunteering for Brain Health

Every person in Las Vegas has a story. My neighbor, Mary Franks, has one.

About a year ago, a relative was showing signs of memory loss. Franks didn’t know much about the causes of memory loss and went to the Internet. In the process, she learned about the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas.

At 888 W. Bonneville Ave. in Las Vegas, surrounded by other distinctive buildings, the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health makes an unforgettable impression.
Photo by Diane Taylor

The Ruvo Center, providing continuing care for patients with cognitive disorders and support for their family members, would be accepting its first patients a month later. The Ruvo Center was in need of volunteers, said its website, so Mary signed on. She was in the Ruvo Center’s first volunteer orientation class.

Today, Franks volunteers at the center one day a week. Some days, when she works the reception desk, Franks is the face of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center the Brain Health, the first person a new patient or a patient’s caregiver meets at the center.

Franks is not alone. In the past year, some 100 Las Vegans have gone through volunteer orientation at the Ruvo Center. Because of vacations, illness or “snowbird” lifestyles, at any one time, some 50 to 60 volunteers are part of the volunteer schedule. They do everything from manning the front desk, producing the Ruvo Center newsletter, handling office tasks, volunteering for special events, staffing the lending library and, in fact, scheduling some of their own volunteer assignments.

Dee King, Ruvo Center Director of Volunteer Services
Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health

The majority of volunteer assignments are for one day a week and for only three to four hours, though that can vary. In the first quarter of 2010, the Ruvo Center benefited from more than 1600 hours of “free” help from the blue-shirted volunteers.

Many of the volunteers are retired Las Vegans, though all ages are represented. This summer, a number of student volunteers will also be part of the team.

Director of Volunteer Services Dee King notes that most of the volunteers, like Larry Ruvo, the man who inspired and worked to establish the center named for his father, have a very personal reason to be involved.

Volunteers Mary Franks, Lorraine Ujifusa, Ruth Rogers and Barbara Briscoe all have their reasons for volunteering at the Ruvo Center.
Photo by Diane Taylor

Lorraine Ujifusa, a New Yorker who formerly worked in property management, notes that she volunteers to “give back” to the community because brain disease is in her family. Ruth Rogers, a retired teacher, has an even closer connection; she has been diagnosed with a very mild form of Parkinson’s disease. “I’m all right,” she says, “but I want to help others who aren’t so fortunate”. Barbara Briscoe is a semi-retired nurse who would love to be involved in an area where research is conducted. In the meantime, she takes on other volunteer assignments. Her whole career has been in helping people so volunteering is a “wonderful way” to help.

Ask the volunteers why, in addition to helping others, they enjoy volunteering at the Ruvo Center and they will say things like “the Ruvo Center’s work is very important,” “you make good friends volunteering,” and “this is a great place to be, light and airy, not depressing at all”.

Frank Gehry-designed windows bring lots of daylight comes to the building's Life Activity Center. Photo by Diane Taylor
Behind the massive stainless steel Ruvo Center facade, lots of daylight comes to the building's Life Activity Center.
Photo by Diane Taylor

The interior beauty of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health may be surprising to some, considering that the much photographed face of the center is an “unusual” swirling mass of Frank Gehry-designed stainless steel. Yet Gehry’s many windows (each a different dimension) add light throughout the Life Activity Center and the medical offices. The building’s stunning pieces of artwork, loaned to the Ruvo Center on consignment (all are for sale), are worth a visit in themselves.

Although currently the public cannot wander through the Ruvo Center without an escort (volunteers accompany every patient to their doctor’s office and stay with the patient until he or she is called), at some future time, King says, docents and public tours are on the agenda.

The future may also include workshops for scrapbookers who want to save memories for their loved ones, something King says “we’re working on”. Keeping memories alive via scrapbooking would be in addition to current programming which includes special lunch and learn workshops and caregiver support groups.

Lending library volunteer Ann Menzel and a favorite book for caregivers, The 36-Hour Day by Nancy Mace and Peter V. Rabins.
Photo by Diane Taylor

One currently under-used service available to the public is the center’s lending library with books on brain diseases and caregiving. On the day this reporter visited, Anne Menzel was the volunteer stationed in the library. She noted she has been a friend of Larry Ruvo’s from the first dinner when he discussed the center concept. Her interest, too, was personal. Both her parents had Alzheimer’s disease, and Menzel was a caregiver for both. Her understanding of “when 80-year-olds can become toddlers” is heartfelt. That day, Menzel had answered a phone call from a nurse in Ohio who was establishing classes in how to handle patients with brain diseases. The nurse needed reference material; Menzel provided a recommended reading list. That day, the volunteer librarian in Las Vegas was doing her job cross country.


7 responses on “Vegas People and Jobs: Volunteering for Brain Health

  1. We received the following press release from Diana Bakowski about a new Alzheimer’s study.

    Have you ever wondered what life would be like if you were unable to recall things which were once so simple to remember? An estimated 5.3 million people in the United States have Alzheimer’s and every 70 seconds another person develops this disease! I am contacting you today on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS) to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and to encourage otherwise healthy adults with early complaints of memory problems to participate in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative Grand Opportunity (ADNI GO). ADNI GO will build on the unprecedented momentum and success of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a landmark study to find more sensitive and accurate methods to detect AD at earlier stages and track its progress through biomarkers.

    By being able to recognize changes in the brain, scientists hope to treat memory loss and other symptoms of AD before they appear, but the only way to recognize what these changes are and learn more about who is at risk is through the participation of volunteers. “We cannot end this terrible disease unless we know more about it,” says Dr. Paul Aisen, M.D., director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Cooperative Study (ADCS). “That is where the amazing volunteers, their friends and their families can make the difference in our success.”

    Dr. Maya Angelou – the eminent poet, author, educator, historian and professor at Wake Forest University – is working with researchers to ask you and your loved ones to be part of the ADNI GO study. Click here to hear from Dr. Maya Angelou.

    If you, a friend, or a family member is experiencing early signs of memory loss, you may be eligible to participate in this groundbreaking ADNI GO study that may help bring us one step closer to finding a cure. Please visit this site or call the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center at 1-800-438-4380 for more information on study sites in your area. I invite you to share this information with your blog readers to help shed light on this devastating disease, and encourage participation in ADNI GO.

    Thank you for your time and please feel free to get in touch with any questions.

    — Diana Bakowski

  2. Diane, nice article. The outside of the building looks offbeat but when I saw the photo with the natural light coming thru it was perfect. Also interesting was the number of volunteers. People in Vegas do care.

  3. Thank you for a wonderful article about the Lou Ruvo Center. It truly is spectacular and the research and patient care unmatched in the country. We should be proud that we have such a “cutting-edge” facility here in Las Vegas.

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