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A bittersweet goodbye

Jonathon Haith and Roberta Zelenko

Jonathon Haith stood behind a table in VCU Medical Center’s North Hospital lobby handing out hand-baked cakes to patients exiting the Dalton Oncology Clinic at VCU Massey Cancer Center.

A man walked up to the table and asked, “How much are you selling cakes for?”

Haith smiled back, “Oh, I’m not selling these. They’re gifts.”

It was his second-to-last-day as a VCU Health valet attendant, and Haith baked six chocolate cakes as a token of goodwill for the people who have had an impact upon him since his first day on the job.

Haith, a 23-year-old public relations graduate from Virginia State University, began working as a valet attendant outside of North Hospital in mid-January.

Even though he only worked there about seven months, a natural magnetism connected him to so many individuals filtering in and out of the facility.

Roberta Zelenko, a former Massey patient and regular volunteer at the cancer center, was rolling the hospitality cart through the Dalton Clinic.

At a moment’s notice, she dropped what she was doing to have a photo taken with Haith and grab a cake.

“It takes 10 minutes and people fall in love with him,” Zelenko said, citing Haith as a testament to the fact that the entire Massey community offers exemplary services and care from the physicians to the valet staff.

Haith remembers first meeting Zelenko, chatting about Pittsburgh sports and getting along almost instantly.

“She’s like a little mother at Massey,” Haith said.

Zelenko was not the only person who was warmed by Haith’s presence around the hospital. In fact, it seemed as though every other person who walked by had something to say to him.

Robert Townsend wheeled his mother, Louise, a 31-year schoolteacher undergoing treatment at Massey, through the North Hospital lobby. Their eyes lit up when they saw Haith standing there.

“We come in here all the time, and it’s so nice to see Jon’s face when we’re in here,” he said, emphasizing that a cancer clinic is not always the most upbeat of environments, but having people like Haith around helps ease that emotional tension.

Louise smiled wide and embraced Haith as he handed her a cake he had made just for her.

Jonathon Haith with Louise and Robert Townsend

Haith developed a personal connection with the Townsends, and he wanted to bake a cake for Louise out of respect for her commitment to the educational field, an area in which he shares a common passion.

As a member of the U.S. Army National Guard, Haith transferred his amiable personality and charitable skill set from VCU Health to Fort Pickett in Blackstone, where he began a human resources role in the military base’s education department.

“HR and education are all about helping people. I’m all about helping people,” Haith said.

Working day-to-day in what was often a 12-hour valet shift, Haith struggled with the fact that he witnessed so many ill patients coming into the clinic, and all he could do to help was park their car for them.

That’s when he realized he could offer another form of assistance with a friendly hand and the occasional baked good.

“If I can do any little thing to put a smile on their face, then that’s what I’ll do,” Haith said.

Haith first made a cake for a woman going through cancer treatment at Massey who grinned in passing and told Haith that he was always the first person she saw when coming to the clinic.

Then, there was another woman who came to receive treatment, accompanied by her husband, and Haith developed a tight-knit bond with the couple.

They are both ministers at a local church, and Haith said that he began to “feel almost like a son to them,” and even joined them for one of their worship services.

Haith was compelled to bake a cake for the man and his wife, whom Haith was happy to report is now cancer-free.

He said that he stayed up until midnight before his second-to-last shift baking the six chocolate cakes. One cake, in particular, was intended for Tikori Whitson, a Massey health information specialist who can be found in Massey’s Linen-Powell Patient Resource Library on most days.

“Everybody knows she’s vibrant, and we became really close,” Haith said.

Then Massey chaplain Jim Bonomo stepped through the front doors to North Hospital, looked up and pointed at Haith from across the room before walking over to greet him by name and offer a warm welcome.

Haith also shared handshakes and jokes with the other valet employees, admitting that he will miss many of the daily relationships he has formed in a short time with VCU, but that its time for him to write the next chapter.

“I’m going out with a sweet tooth in their mouth,” Haith said, as he shared a cake with his co-workers and promised to return to Massey often.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: December 13, 2016