Over the years, as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon, I’ve met countless numbers of patients challenged with facing countless numbers of devastating diseases. Some of them stared straight into the eyes of death. They persevered through a tumultuous battle against a potentially fatal diagnosis.
But they survived. Their victory is certain testament to unforeseen bravery and courage.
Occasionally I’ve encountered another kind of patient altogether- a healing warrior. Although relatively, and thankfully less common, these individuals have flirted with death not once, not twice, but three or more times and counting. Their remarkable testimony is one of a completely different breed. It’s above and beyond all reasonable expectations.
These patients also face a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease. They struggle through the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, courageously arriving at Acceptance with a will to win. Then suddenly, perhaps as a result of their first diagnosis, they find themselves smack in the face of another life defining ailment. It may be unrelated but it’s always threatening defeat.
They’re left with the proverbial choice to “fight or flight.” Choosing the former, their recurring confrontations with pain and turmoil slowly begin to shape them into healing warriors.
They are inspirationally living examples of all the human, and superhuman, qualities that define a survivor.
The Healing Warrior
My friend Shari is one such warrior and someone to whom others look for inspiration and strength, particularly when life deals them a hand they’d rather not play. She is a courageous warrior soldiering through life admirably.
Shari came into the medical system in Tampa, Florida through the Moffitt Cancer Center while I was in my training in general surgery. I didn’t know her personally until many years later.
In the summer of 1989, Shari and her husband Lance were happily enjoying life and had recently given birth to a healthy baby girl. Shari began having fairly constant right shoulder pain that she thought was worsening bursitis. The persistence of symptoms prompted her to seek further medical attention.
Unfortunately, she was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma. This cancer of bone is a dangerous, often fatal, malignancy. It was located in the humerus (upper arm) bone.
Shari was shocked by the news. She and her husband were just beginning to enjoy the best of life’s bounty. Their beautiful daughter had just reached 21 months and their young family’s future was filled with God’s blessings and promise.
Now suddenly they found themselves in the grip of a devastating disease that could potentially claim Shari’s life. The thought of leaving Lance a widower to raise their lovely daughter without a mother was frightening beyond words.
Shari could hardly believe it. She had nearly lost her life to meningitis as a baby only to be facing a possible premature demise again. Ironically doctors suspected the cancer was possibly related to medications used to combat her meningitis.
Shari and Lance prayed for a deepening of their faith trusting that God would provide the needed resources to win the war ahead of them. She underwent a major surgical resection of part of the humerus and surrounding tissue.
In addition, she struggled through 18 months of chemotherapy including a preoperative dose. Each session of chemotherapy required her to drive two hours to Tampa. She would then be admitted to the hospital enduring 3 to 6 days of illness. Also, everything was compounded by the associated, painfully exhausting side effects of treatment.
In addition to allergies to pain medications, she was allergic to nearly every drug prescribed for nausea except one that was cost prohibitive and another requiring abdominal injections. With little to treat the pain, the persistent nausea mandated she accept the injections.
For each of 10 days following every chemo session she injected herself in the abdomen. Meanwhile she continued praying that God would grace her with tolerance.
Still she suffered through never-ending nausea and fatigue feeling guilty that she was unable to be the wife and mother she desperately desired to be—not to mention daughter, sister, and friend. Yet she cherished all of those relationships, along with the love and support they provided.
It was all Shari could do to compensate for the decreased quantity of time with Sarah by maximizing its quality. Still, the toll on everyone felt nearly intolerable. She persevered. Her mind and body fought to survive, fighting for her life with every tool in her arsenal.
Power of a Smile
One day she lost all of her hair over the course of only two hours. She remained positive knowing sometimes laughter was her most effective weapon. Smile, and somehow act my way to some kind of happiness.
Thankfully there were some light moments too. Like the first time she smiled at young Sarah for saying Mommy looked like a duck with her surgical mask. The paper masks were necessary guards against illness from the immunosuppression incited by chemo.
Then there were many more hospital admissions, numerous procedures, along with countless x-rays and scans. In addition to all of the extensive chemotherapy, Shari underwent at least five further surgeries. This was before having any functional use of her right upper extremity.
Exhaustive sessions of physical therapy were vital to the return of any range of motion or function. Her normal activities of daily living were compromised with complete restoration unlikely. Sometimes progress was even impaired by further wear and tear to muscles, often from therapy.
Finally, with God’s help, a smile, and strong support system, Shari was cancer free. Her undying perseverance along with her deep faith and positive disposition, and love from family, all combined to make up the arsenal of a healing warrior.
Slowly but surely life returned to normal living. Shari and Lance continued counting their blessings and deepening their faith which they imparted to their loving daughter Sarah as she grew to her early teens.
A strong support network, smiling positivity, and faith in God are the three key weapons in this warrior’s arsenal. Little did she know her life would mandate that she reach for them again – sooner than later.
Do you have a story of healing, perseverance, and faith? I’d love to hear it. Why not share it with a comment below?
Part Two coming next…