When Bob Stansell began volunteering at Children's Hospital of Orange County two years ago, he was nervous about getting lost in the maze of hallways. Being around sick children also intimidated him.
His fears, typical of many new volunteers, were heightened by his own medical history. Stansell, 25, had a series of medical problems six years ago that impaired his motor and speech skills.
But his determination to work with children overcame his fear, and today Stansell is a familiar and popular figure in the Orange hospital's recreation therapy department.
At 19, Stansell was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system and destroys nerve endings, leaving victims with no feeling or strength. While in the hospital, complications set in that left him in a coma for several weeks.
When he emerged from the coma, unable to walk or speak and with limited use of his arms, doctors at his South Carolina hospital said he would never walk again and would be mentally retarded. But Stansell defied the odds and now spends three afternoons a week at CHOC.
"The kids make it worthwhile," he said. "I can relate to what they are going through, and I think they can relate to me."
After his mother, Joyce Stansell, moved with Stansell and his brother, Don, to Orange County in the summer of 1989, Stansell was admitted to area therapy programs. After a six-month stay at a treatment facility in Downey, his progress improved to the point that he can walk without aid. His speech, although still impaired, is intelligible, but his enthusiasm for his volunteer work is clear.
Whether it's calling bingo games, aiding children in art projects or supervising CHOC's playroom, Stansell, now living in Placentia, is thoughtful and reliable, said Joy Whittrock, a recreation therapist and Stansell's supervisor.
"I had reservations that Bob might present a lot of work for us," Whittrock said. "But from the beginning he has been very responsible."
The two years he has spent volunteering at CHOC have affected Stansell in several ways. The death of a patient with whom he formed a special attachment still hurts, he said, and the intensive care unit brings back painful memories of his own experiences. But for the most part, the effects of his work have been positive.
"Helping here has given me the courage to try things I wouldn't normally try," Stansell said.
That includes enrolling this year in a two-year program at Coastline Community College for people with brain injuries. Four mornings a week, Stansell participates in activities and classes to improve development in such areas as memory and hand-eye coordination.
Stansell is candid about his limits. At the same time, he is determined to accomplish many things others might think impossible.
"He told me he wanted to get his driver's license, and I told him there was no way," said his brother, Don. But Stansell did not let it go, and today he is the proud possessor of a California driver's license.
"Bob's a lot less centered on himself and what he can't do," Don Stansell added. "He centers on how he can help others."
Because he can remember what he was like before his illness, Stansell sometimes gets frustrated when he can't accomplish a seemingly simple task. But he said spending time with the young patients at CHOC has given him a new perspective.
"Working here has helped me deal with my disabilities," he said. "I don't mind as much."