DANVERS — In-the-know patients at Mass General/North Shore Cancer Center in Danvers know to look for signs of Tom Gould's presence.
"It's ice cream day!" exclaimed a woman in a wheelchair when she spotted a man walking out the front doors carrying a heaping cup of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.
If there are no tangible signs at the front, patients' heads instinctively turn as they round the corner into the reception area, hoping to see Gould's table set up in the usual spot.
"When they see the table, it's, 'Is Tom coming?'" said Rose Watson, a patient services coordinator. "They love it."
Gould, the owner of Treadwell's Ice Cream in Peabody, has been doling out tasty sundaes at the cancer center every month for the last decade — and free of charge. He arrives on a different day each month to catch as many cancer patients as he can.
"They get really excited about it — it makes their day," said Krissy DeSimone, a hospital greeter.
"We get a lot of patients who want to know when Tom is coming," Watson said, "so they can book their appointments around him."
When Gould arrives for his monthly visit, everyone at the center hears about it pretty quickly. The center's 83 employees — and some of the just over 200 employees that work at the hospital — sporadically migrate downstairs to grab a sundae and pick up a few to deliver to the patients upstairs.
Gould gives out about 150 sundaes per visit and estimates he's given away more than 18,000 sundaes to patients, family and staff over the last 10 years. What he takes away from the visits is more than worth it.
"We've made friends with patients, we receive Christmas cards from survivors and thank-yous from those who have lost loved ones," he said. "We feel like we're part of the family."
One cancer survivor wrote Gould recently to tell him his cancer was in remission and that he couldn't have done it without the ice cream.
For his efforts, the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center honored Gould this year by naming him one of the 100 people and organizations who have stood out in the fight against cancer. The annual recognition honors other everyday heroes such as Gould, as well as groundbreaking researchers, world-class doctors, celebrities and others.
Looking for a way to help
Gould began his charity work shortly after he and wife Sharon bought Treadwell's in 2000. They received an invitation to Cancer Survivor Day in Lynn and were moved by what they saw.
"It was so touching and heart-wrenching hearing from people who had lost folks, and from people struggling to survive," Gould said. "We asked the director (at the North Shore Cancer Center) what we could do to help. He said bring ice cream once a month or once a year, whenever you can."
He has been doing it ever since.
As you might expect, there are plenty of sad times, too. When some of the familiar faces are conspicuously gone for a while, he starts to worry. He has seen friends he's made at the hospital die and even delivered sundaes to patients in hospice.
"It's very sad, but when you watch them with a big smile come up to get their ice cream and it makes them feel good, it's very rewarding," he said.
The folks with the good fortune of scheduling their appointments around lunchtime this past Monday were sure happy about it. The ice cream social turned what might have been a grim trip into something much happier.
"I've been coming here for six years, and in all those years, this is probably only the third time (I'm here on sundae day)," Na-hant resident Lola Latsis said as she happily polished off a sundae in the waiting room. "For all the people who come here, this is a little ray of sunshine. It's not a pleasant experience, but this is a nice little perk."
Having grown up in Peabody, she remembers visiting Treadwell's for ice cream as a little girl.
"You can't beat the hot fudge sundaes," Latsis said.
Jim Pasquale of Lynn knew Gould's parents and is now a patient at the Cancer Center.
"Tom's an awesome kid, I've known him since he was a young boy," said Pasquale, who was enjoying a sundae with his daughter Mary Cole and wife, Barbara, on Monday.
This is Pasquale's second month of treatment after he was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"It's an experience, but not as bad as I thought it might be," he said about the radiation. "It's a week of feeling lousy, and my curls are leaving (my hair)."
The radiation also quells his appetite, "but the one thing he still likes to eat is ice cream," his daughter said.
"We hit it just right having an appointment today," Pasquale said.
Staff writer Jesse Roman can be reached at email@example.com.