Volunteers have their hair cut and donated at this year’s ECU’s Pirates vs. Cancer fundraiser (photo: ECU Photography)

ECU medical students lead Pirates vs. Cancer fundraiser for pediatric cancer patients


Some have watched loved ones fight the disease, while others have worked with cancer patients during clinical rotations. Other students and alumni have even been cancer patients themselves.

Whatever their unique experiences with cancer have been, the response has been powerful. Their encounters with cancer turned into a growing tradition that benefits children from across eastern North Carolina who are fighting cancer battles of their own.

The eighth annual Pirates vs. Cancer event on April 12 raised close to $15,000 for pediatric cancer patients at ECU Health’s James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital.

Several Brody School of Medicine faculty volunteered to be pied in the face by students as one of the event’s fundraising activities.

Several Brody School of Medicine faculty volunteered to be pied in the face by students as one of the event’s fundraising activities.

Led by Brody students, the fundraiser has gained popularity and momentum over the years, with volunteers having their hair cut and donated, getting their heads shaved and even — for special faculty volunteers — receiving a pie to the face in support of the cause.

“One thing that I love about Pirates vs. Cancer is that you are able to see with your own eyes the direct impact of this work on the children at Maynard Children’s Hospital,” said Carly Uhlir, Brody student and event coordinator for Pirates vs. Cancer. “We know that every dollar we raise will add up to make a difference. Kids with pediatric cancer are more than just patients — they are among the strongest and bravest in our community. I want to continue the Pirates vs. Cancer mission that the founders so strongly believed in years ago and that has transcended all these years.”

Dr. Cedric Bright, senior associate dean of admissions for Brody, volunteered to receive pies in the face during the event on the lawn of the Health Sciences Student Center.

“It does your heart good to help the students with this type of thing to support those that are going through trying times with cancer,” he said. “Patients teach us so much, and this is just one way of us trying to give back to those patients that teach us so much.”

Jillian Berntsen of Kinston had her hair cut as an audience looked on and cheered — much like the health care teams and supporters helping her daughter during her cancer journey.

Berntsen said her daughter is receiving in-patient care at Maynard Children’s Hospital, her latest stay stretching for nine weeks. Pirates vs. Cancer gave the family a welcome respite from the hospital walls.

Jillian Berntsen of Kinston had her hair cut as her family watched. Berntsen said her daughter is receiving in-patient care at Maynard Children’s Hospital. (ECU photos by Steven Mantilla.)

Jillian Berntsen of Kinston had her hair cut as her family watched. Berntsen said her daughter is receiving in-patient care at Maynard Children’s Hospital. (ECU photos by Steven Mantilla.)

“There are so many things this hospital does, and the people we get to interact with have really become our family at this point from everything she’s been through,” Berntsen said. “We never really thought we’d have to experience anything like this and had no idea that things like this existed. This is the first time we’ve left the hospital in nine weeks, and knowing we had this to look forward to all week was something to get us through another week.”

The event was also eagerly anticipated by Brody students and community volunteers who wanted to help create a memorable and meaningful way to benefit pediatric patients. It has become part of a lifeline of support that keeps this special patient population equipped with resources to help them during their cancer journeys.

“The funds raised by PVC are critical to the maintenance of a positive environment for pediatric cancer patients here in Greenville,” said Grant Irons, Brody student and interdisciplinary chair of Pirates vs. Cancer.

Irons, who plans to pursue medical oncology as a specialty and spent time before medical school working with cancer patients, said the event also offers students a chance to see the realities of what some patients face and an opportunity to pause and look at the bigger picture.

“As future health care leaders, it is important to remember why we are here,” he said. “We entered the health care field to improve the lives of others. To become a well-rounded physician, I believe it is important to be involved outside of the classroom. There are endless opportunities to support our patient population here in Greenville, and I would encourage all health sciences students to lend a hand in these efforts.”

Dr. Cathleen Cook, Brody clinical associate professor of pediatric hematology/oncology and faculty advisor for Pirates vs. Cancer, said the event gives students exposure to the care of pediatric patients right here in eastern North Carolina.

“This fundraiser allows them the chance to see their financial contributions directly help these children while they are hospitalized in James and Connie Maynard Children’s Hospital and cared for in our ECU Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic,” Cook said.

Previous donations through the event, she added, have been used to remodel an inpatient playroom, a space of respite for patients undergoing treatment. Pirates vs. Cancer also helps fund a portion of summer camps for pediatric hematology and oncology patients — Camp Rainbow and Camp Hope.

“Often, donors and volunteers are unaware of the administrative costs that are allocated from the proceeds and not able to see their donations at work,” Cook said. “For Pirates vs Cancer, 100% of the donations are re-invested in our pediatric patients, most specifically our oncology patients. It is my vision to continue to engage these future physicians annually and help support their goal of expanding this fundraiser.”

Brody student Katie Holt decided to get involved with the event to make an impact beyond fundraising. She served as this year’s president of Pirates vs. Cancer.

“Helping to put on this event is awe-inspiring because it puts into perspective the actual size of the Brody and health sciences community,” Holt said. “Applying to Brody, you are frequently told about the passion of the community in serving Greenville and eastern North Carolina. Helping to organize this event gives you a front-row seat to this passion in action.”

Holt said the annual event has caught on across the community.

“People I have never met have reached out to us to offer their help,” she said. “Businesses across the community donate their time and money. Employees from all different departments buy T-shirts to support us. Students across the many health sciences schools donate their hair. The event has shown us firsthand that ECU doesn’t just talk about serving others but goes above and beyond to invest in its community.”

Holt said the event, in addition to benefiting pediatric cancer patients, helps center medical students and remind them why they chose health care careers.

“Serving others, through this event or another community service program, benefits the community as well as serves to fight burnout and protect your mental health,” she said. “I know it has done this for me and many others on the Pirates vs. Cancer team by connecting us to something bigger than ourselves and keeping our sights fixed on a point beyond the next test.”

Uhlir said the event brings participants full circle in seeing their own life journeys while also understanding the magnitude of the battles other people face.

“It is both humbling and inspiring. As medical students, we often lose sight of the big picture. These patients have been through so much, so it is an amazing opportunity to be able to support them directly,” she said. “I also think back to all of the children I have known both personally and indirectly from the time I was a kid myself until now, and how this is such a great way of honoring their spirits.”