It started with a simple, two-word compliment.
Upstate second-year medical student Shunqing Zhang was volunteering at Ronald McDonald House last summer when he saw a young boy wearing a cap with the logo of the Cleveland Cavaliers professional basketball team.
“Nice cap!” Shunqing told him.
Shunqing learned that the boy was being treated at the Upstate Cancer Center. And that the cap was a gift from Cancer Center staff, who would regularly buy them for patients who lose their hair from chemotherapy.
“They pay out of their pockets, which is nice,” Shunqing said.
But also expensive.
Shunqing thought it would be nice if someone else could donate the caps and hats. He sought advice from fellow Upstate student/Ronald McDonald House volunteer Michael Rosenthal, and reached out to a Child Life Specialist at the Cancer Center.
And he came up with a plan.
Shunqing, who did his master’s degree research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, recalled an event where he had met a representative from Buffalo-based New Era Cap Co. — Michelle Ostrander, a Syracuse University graduate. So he sent her an e-mail.
“My request was well-received,” Shunqing said, unable to suppress a smile. More e-mails and phone calls to the company followed. “I told them a variety (of professional and college team caps) is always welcome,” Shunqing said.
A box of three or four dozen now arrives each month at the Upstate Cancer Center – caps in warm weather, and hats now that November is upon us. Patients at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital also benefit.
“The moral of the story is,” Shunqing said, “if you want to do something, try it. Maybe it won’t happen every time, but I had amazing luck and it pushed me into motion.”
On a recent afternoon in the Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders at the Cancer Center, Child Life Specialist Sarah Buck and Shunqing showed a collection of New Era hats to patient Connor Stanton, 10.
Connor was especially pleased to find one with the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks logo as he talked with Shunqing about professional sports teams.
Shunqing, who is from China, plans to specialize in cancer as a physician. It’s in part because his grandfather died from the disease, and because he finds cancer intriguing from a research and clinical perspective.
Before coming to Upstate, Shunqing earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University and a master’s degree in interdisciplinary science at the University at Buffalo’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute Graduate Division.
He specialized in oncology research and is first author of a book chapter on cancer imaging and therapy in “Topics in Heterocyclic Chemistry,” published in 2014.
In addition to the demands of medical school and his volunteer work at Ronald McDonald House, Shunqing has found time to continue with his research. He worked last summer in the lab of Juntao Luo, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology, and was selected to give one of three oral presentations at the 2015 Northeast Regional Meeting of the American Physician Scientists Association last month.
Away from the lab and second-year lectures, Shunqing said volunteering at Ronald McDonald House has led to meaningful talks with children and their parents. He feels fortunate to be around them.
“Some of the conversations are unlike what you’d have in a medical setting,” he said. “There are sad stories as well as joyful ones. Those are really . . .” — he paused – “. . . It makes me better. I see things differently. I really appreciate the center and want to be there. I want to keep talking to people, and helping people. It keeps me balanced.”
Shunqing also credits his wife, Janet Lai, a graduate student at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management who is active in local refugee assistance and sustainability efforts.
The two were high school sweethearts in their native Shanghai. “She is my inspiration,” Shunqing said.