Chaplain speaks: “Surviving & thriving with blood cancer”

Chaplain Tanya Willis-Robinson serves bone marrow patients and their families every day at IU Health University Hospital. She will share some of her insights on the power of resilience at a free workshop on June 15.

As she enters the infusion waiting area of IU Health Simon Cancer Center Tanya Willis-Robinson is greeted by patient Debra Poynter. There’s a big hug and then Poynter says: “Gulp of Grace.”

Willis-Robinson has become known for the phrase encouraging others to be patient with their healing and take in a gulp of grace.

“You touch a lot of people’s lives. You are always so happy and cheerful,” said Poynter’s sister Susie Ferrand. Poynter, of Rochdale, Ind. had a bone marrow transplant at IU Health and is in remission. She’s one of many patients Willis-Robinson has seen in her six years with IU Health.

She treats each patient as an individual.

“I always give my best. I never know what difference I make. I go in and try to be very present and go in with fresh energy. It’s a new encounter every time,” said Willis-Robinson. So many patients remain on her mind. She tells about one who shared his fears of chemotherapy.

“I remember the day he became vulnerable and cried. I pulled a stool by him and held his hand. I said ‘we’re not going to talk about chemo or leukemia; we’re just going to enjoy this moment,” said Willis-Robinson. She met with him, his wife and daughter several times and after he passed his wife sent Willis-Robinson a letter of appreciation. She quoted Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Willis-Robinson lives by that motto.

A native of the city’s eastside, she graduated from Arlington High School and served two years on active duty and seven years reserved with the US Navy. She was stationed on the USS Yellowstone at a time women were just beginning to be integrated on Naval ships.

After the Navy she enrolled in Marian University where she obtained a degree in religious education and then received a Master in Divinity from Bethany Theological Seminary.

“I saw my first female chaplain when I was in the Navy. It resonated with me. I am Pentecostal and you don’t see a lot of women in leadership but I knew it was something I was called to do,” said Willis-Robertson. “There was always a knowing in my subconscious that I wanted to work in a field that allowed my vocation to meet my faith. I was privileged to be able to do both. I’m a professional chaplain however my vocation is in spiritual care and I love it.

“As a chaplain I don’t go and offer prayer I offer myself and with that a space is created for them to share themselves. As chaplains we’re individuals who have been trained in many areas. I’m able to offer generous and empathic listening and let them talk about fears and hopes.”

Willis-Robertson will take part in a free workshop from 8:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Saturday, June 15 at St. Richards Episcopal School where she will speak on the “Power of Resilience.” IU Health patient Teresa Altemeyer will join her. IU Health Dr. Rafat Abonour, who specializes in hematology/oncology, will also speak about Myeloma & Waldenstroms Emerging Therapies. The program is presented by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) and will include complimentary breakfast and lunch for patients and caregivers.

“My focus on resiliency is coming from a faith lens – a more holistic lens that encompasses body mind and spirit,” said Willis-Robinson. “Not every person may have a faith story but they are individuals who can be touched and encouraged. My goal is to encourage families to share their hopes and fears and hopefully they can suspend their hopes long enough to be resilient. I want them to be able to speak the truth, to name their feelings and share them with loved ones. Before you can be resilient you have to speak the truth.”

More about Willis-Robinson:

  • She is the daughter of Samuel and Mattie Willis and the sister to Gregory Willis. Her older brother Samuel “Tyrone” Willis became a Riley patient when he was born with a heart defect. As an adult he was a patient at IU Health University Hospital until the time of his death at the age of 30.
  • She has been married to Ronald Robinson for 15 years. Together they have three sons ages 26, 22, and 11.

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email