Recreational therapist shares how cancer led to a meaningful life
Today when he comes to the hospital, Dunning, 47, of Syracuse wears an identification badge and reports to the rehabilitation unit where he works as a recreation therapist.
Dunning has been a hospital employee for 17 years. Before that, he was a student interning in recreation therapy. Before that, he volunteered. But first, he was a patient.
He was 20 when his brain tumor was located. “At the time, I just had my immediate family. That was a lot for my parents to deal with. Now as a parent, I can‘t imagine what they had to go through.”
Prior to the surgery, the surgeon gave three possible explanations for the tumor, the least likely being cancer. “I still remember like yesterday waking up in recovery,” Dunning recalls. His eyes remained taped.
“Paul?” the doctor queried.
“It was cancer, wasn‘t it?” Dunning responded.
“I‘m so sorry.”
Dunning was ready for the fight. Radioactive “seeds” were planted in the tumor area. He also underwent external radiation therapy and multiple surgeries. He never uses the word “cure,” but Dunning today considers himself a cancer survivor. He is even grateful for the cancer: He met Jennifer on his last day of outpatient therapy at Upstate. She was in her first week of training as a physical therapy student. Now they are married with four children from age 6 to 15.
As his therapy progressed and he got better, Dunning began volunteering on the rehabilitation and the pediatric hematology-oncology units. “I felt like I wanted to give back to the hospital and the people who gave me back my life,” he says.
Once his health stabilized, he realized he no longer wanted to pursue a degree in accounting. Instead, he enrolled at Onondaga Community College for a two-year degree in leisure and recreation studies, started working, and then attended the State University of New York at Cortland to graduate with a four-year degree. He completed an internship at Upstate and was hired when a recreation therapy position opened.
Dunning has a visible scar on his head. He wears a brace on his right leg for support due to foot drop. To rehabilitation patients, his physical scars and weakness provide a comfort level that allows for conversation. He readily shares his challenges, and the triumphs, the way he had a bicycle adapted so he could ride with his wife, the way he hikes with his son. Dunning‘s physical deficits have not hampered his work as a recreation therapist. On the contrary, he says. “I think that‘s why I‘m here.”
Dunning is one of the Upstate employees featured in this video: