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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A DIFFERENT KIND OF COURAGE 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF COURAGE

There are many different kinds of courage. Certainly, the men and women of our military display courage every day. There are those who act on the courage of their convictions by speaking out on issues that concern them. Police and firefighters are known for the courage they exhibit in their chosen professions.

In the last several weeks, we have heard about three prominent Americans and their fight with cancer. It is indeed unfortunate that so many have politicized their respective struggles to overcome this terrible disease that has most likely affected the family of every one of us. The story that should be told is that no matter what one’s political persuasion, social standing, religion or race, we are all potential victims of this affliction. Indeed, I think the real story is how we deal with it, rather than who we are. That the Snow family, the Edwards family and most recently Fred Thompson are reacting with dignity and courage should be the lesson, not the political impact on the Edwards campaign, the Bush presidency, or the political future of Mr. Thompson.

I want to relate the story of one young woman, and the battles she has fought. For one so young, she has displayed a different kind of courage than that displayed on the news. She has the courage to stay alive. Indeed, without that courage, she would most likely not be here today. And her story is the one I wish to share in detail.

From birth (premature) to age sixteen, she was the kind of child that most parents both desire and dread. Strong willed (perhaps from being the youngest of five), stubborn, tough, talented, competitive and smart. Early on, she exhibited extraordinary talent in both music and sports. By her mid-teens, she could play piano, trumpet, French horn and saxophone. Her favorite instrument was the clarinet, with her idol being the great Benny Goodman, whom she emulated in both style and substance. She was in marching band, jazz band, symphony and orchestra; as part of the High School music program that became the first in the nation to be awarded a Grammy for excellence.

Her athletic skills also showed while still young. In Grammar school, she set a girl’s softball league record for stolen bases in a season (68 steals in 16 games). By High School, she played on the state champion basketball team, soccer team, and softball team. She certainly would not have stood out in a crowd, at 5’3” and 110 lbs. But on the field and on the court, her courage and spirit allowed her to play beyond her size. But sixteen proved to be a pivotal year.

It started with unexplained blackouts and irregular responses to physical efforts. After many tests, and the loss of her ability to participate in any athletics, she was diagnosed with a heart ailment that caused her heart rate and respiration to speed up to dangerous levels while at rest, and slow down to dangerous levels when engaging in strenuous activity. Four different surgical procedures did not correct the problem, but did cause her to miss so much school that she was required to transfer to an alternative High School. Her ability to pursue her music was also curtailed, as the new school had no music program.

With the loss of her ability to participate in either music or sports, she turned her interest to academics. What was once a third choice now became her primary activity. She turned from a solid C student to an Honor Roll student overnight. Her grades and college test scores earned her entry into the pre-med program at a noted University. But the extreme rigors of the curriculum were more than her health could handle, and she was not able to pursue her medical school goal. By this time, she was also experiencing serious muscle pain, and suffered multiple incidents of broken bones caused by such normal activities as stepping off a curb.

The heart issue was finally addressed after several occurrences which were severe enough to necessitate resuscitation, once by a team of EMT’s, another during a surgical procedure, and one by her father. A brilliant cardiologist, brought in to consult, corrected the improper cardiac responses by implanting a specially designed and programmed pacemaker defibrillator device. This same specialist referred her to another doctor, who identified the pain and bone issues as arthritis and fibromyalgia. However, all of the doctors were puzzled as to why one so young, and formerly in such good physical condition, was experiencing such an advanced case of what is essentially an older persons medical condition.

Not waiting for doctors to decide her fate, she continued her education. After finishing nursing school and passing the medical boards for certification, she continued on with her education. While earning three additional Associate Degrees, she was elected President of the local chapter of Thi Betta Kappa, the Junior College equivalent of the prestigious Phi Betta Kappa honor society. A regular on the Deans List and the Presidents List, she refused to be bound by physical problems, or allow her condition to limit her educational interests. It was at this time that an unplanned pregnancy brought one more opportunity for her to exhibit both courage and character. Her decision was never in doubt, and she took on the task of being a single parent, while continuing her studies. While her family stood with her, providing monetary and more importantly, emotional and logistical support, it was her strength that allowed her to not surrender to circumstances.

Another curve ball, this one unhittable, was thrown at her before her son’s first birthday. She was advised that many of the physical issues she was dealing with, outside of the cardiac condition, was the result of Lupus. The tests showed that not only her muscles and bones were affected, but she had already suffered some damage to both her kidneys and her liver. At a point when many would have given up, she decided instead to move closer to the University that she wanted to attend to complete her graduate work and post graduate studies. Setting up a student housing residence, and getting her son ready for Pre School and eventually parochial school, she felt she was finally getting all of the health issues, if not corrected, at least under control. Fate, however, had other plans.

During a routine blood test used to monitor the Lupus, other abnormalities were detected. After some additional tests were ordered and studied, the diagnosis was acute lymphocytic leukemia. The cardiac device precluded her receiving radiation therapy, and the Lupus excluded her from a bone marrow transplant. The only treatment would be chemotherapy, with a number of ‘cocktails’ available. The first set of infusions did not have any significant effect, which caused the University Oncologists to conduct an extraordinary battery of tests. Certain tools were not available, as you cannot do an MRI on a patient with a pacemaker, as one example. However, an observant doctor, acting on a hunch, went looking for any undetected tumors, which might interfere with the treatments. Sure enough, he found two small cancerous tumors hidden between an arm bone and the attached cartilage. After surgically removing these, the next set of chemo infusions did show an improvement. After some months, she was declared in remission. During all of this, she maintained her class schedules, and was named to the Deans List.

The remission of the leukemia was short lived, with its reappearance several months later. Another round of chemo therapy, with a stronger set of chemicals, was ordered. This time, after tests showed the cancer again in remission, the doctors continued the chemo treatments for another six weeks. This was to ‘insure’ that they got it all. For the next six months, this appeared to be the case. Courage, will and years of prayers had hopefully given her the opportunity to live her life with some degree of normalcy.

The normalcy ended four weeks before her twenty-seventh birthday. A blood test taken while dealing with her semi-annual case of pneumonia showed that the leukemia had again shown its persistence. A new round of chemo therapy is being undertaken, and the results will not be known for some time. This young woman, and her now five year old son, are dealing with it as just another inconvenience. She refuses to consider herself a victim, and will not tolerate that sentiment from either family or friends. Her intensity has not been diminished, and her resolve to win yet another battle is unshakable. So yes, I do believe that this woman’s life is a study in courage. Not of the kind of courage usually cited, but the courage to lead a normal life under extraordinary circumstances.

Courage comes in many forms, and takes many shapes. There are courageous people all around us, but it often is a quiet courage that usually goes unrecognized. Perhaps you might take some time and think about your family, friends, neighbors and co-workers. If you think about them in depth, I would be willing to wager that you can find many of those you know are courageous in ways that never occurred to you before. And after that, think about your own life and experiences, for you may discover that you also are more courageous than you realize.


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