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GENERATIONS: SUE BRUNS: Thad Bowman is facing a challenge by helping others

Thad Bowman is a volunteer in the Surgery Center at Sanford Bemidji. (Photo by Polly Scotland)

Thad Bowman sits inside the Surgery Center waiting room at Sanford Bemidji, watching for the monitor with the list of the morning's surgeries. He explains to me the color-coded lines on the monitor. It's a light schedule today—the day before Christmas. A few surgeries are already in progress; others are coded yellow for "Pre-Op." Just one person sits in the waiting area, a man reading a book—waiting for someone's surgery to be completed.

Thad maneuvers his wheelchair around to exit the waiting room. He checks on the man in the chair who has dozed off. Thad doesn't wake him

"I try to catch family members to answer any questions they might have."

Thad smiles, greets staff as they walk by, asks people how they are. When there's a lull, he reads on his iPad. "I read a lot. I can't turn pages any more," he says, appreciative of the technology that allows him to read books online.

A man enters from the parking lot and asks Thad about the status of a family member. Thad gets the name, checks the patient number. The screen lists the patient as "green," meaning the procedure is complete and the patient is in post-op recovery care. He offers to walk the man back to the room, but he says he'll wait. Thad's motorized wheelchair takes him to the recovery area to check with staff. He returns a few minutes later and tells the man, "It'll be another 15 minutes or so."

"Some people don't like this job because it's not always busy," Thad tells me, "but when I started doing it in the summers, it was a lot different from teaching where there's always a lot going on. The pace is more relaxed here."

Before his retirement in 2008, Thad taught chemistry at Bemidji High School for 22 years. He started volunteering at the Surgery Center during the summers 18 years ago. Originally from Brooklyn Center, Minn., Thad says he hadn't taken high school too seriously, so when he graduated, "I wasn't sure I was college material," and he signed up at a commercial college where he decided to take the hardest class they offered. "If I survived it, I would go to college," he recalls. He hadn't taken chemistry in high school, so that's the class he chose. By the second quarter, he was at the top of his class. He earned an associate's degree in 1980 and transferred to Bemidji State, where he double majored in biology and chemistry and minored in physics, graduating in 1983.

He took a job with the Department of Agriculture at the University of North Dakota, doing research on trace minerals, but lab work didn't provide the kind of interaction with people he needed out of a career, so he earned a teaching degree and got the job in Bemidji.

With an understanding of kids who might not be any more motivated than he'd been in high school, he approached teaching with empathy and gentle nudging accompanied by dry quirky humor and a quick smile. He had met his challenge and found his passion, but then a new challenge presented itself.

In 1996, he started to experience difficulty lifting his legs. "My legs were so heavy." He went to see Dr. Livermore, who referred him to a neurologist. Multiple sclerosis was mentioned as a possibility, but it took almost six months for a definitive diagnosis. By 1999, he was experiencing some numbness, and an MRI revealed lesions—bad news. The MS was progressing.

By 2008, the physical demands of teaching full time were too much, and Thad retired, but volunteering was something he could still do. "Most people do just one day a week, but I requested a second day," he said. "I feel good when I volunteer and I hated to wait a week to go back."

Helping others came naturally to Thad as a teacher and as a volunteer, but learning to accept help has been more difficult: "I've had good helpers," he says of the people who get him up in the mornings. "I couldn't be in my home any more without them. At first it was hard to accept that I couldn't do certain things, but with time, there's an adjustment to accepting help—accepting that I need it. I had to learn patience."

Thad stopped driving about six years ago. Now he rides the city bus. "They've got lifts—all of the buses do—and they tie down the chair. The other day when I was on, they picked up two others (in wheelchairs). It's really an important service or I'd be stuck at home. A lot of people would."

And Thad is not ready to be stuck at home. Volunteering keeps him going. "I do it because I enjoy it," he tells me. "Some people just like to visit with someone while they're waiting." He shares a story about a man who waited nervously while his wife was in surgery. "He was glad I was there. It was calming, he told me."

Another rewarding part of the job is seeing former students. "Several of them work right here," he says. "It's fun to see them."

Thad's calm demeanor and warm smile help diminish the anxiety people in a Surgery Center waiting room often experience. "It's such a good thing that you do this," I tell him.

"I was honored a few years ago as a volunteer, and that was really nice, but I do this for myself; it keeps me going," he says. "I can't do a lot of things now, so it's good to have (a place) I can go and contribute."

NOTE: Dear readers, for the past several years, I've shared personal reminiscences, recollections, and occasional attempts at humor in my column. For 2019, my stories will have a different focus, or should I say they will have a focus? Today's story about Thad Bowman is the first in a series of stories about what individuals and groups of people are doing in retirement.

Thank you for reading.