Six New Stefanie's Champions Honored
Six unsung heroes in the lives of patients with cancer were honored at the seventh annual Stefanie's Champions Awards Luncheon held on April 19, 2006. Stefanie Spielman (far left) and her husband, Chris (far right) pause with the 2006 Stefanie's Champions Lowell Berry, Nancy Baldwin, Jeff Peterson, Molly O'Ryan, Steven Salazar and Al Kerze.
CHAMPION: Nancy Baldwin -- A Mother's Love
A mother’s love knows no bounds.
When her daughter was diagnosed in November 2004 with breast cancer, Nancy Baldwin didn’t think twice about doing everything possible to help Lori Morris make it through eight months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
“She showed support by cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and running errands,” Lori wrote as she nominated her mother to be one of Stefanie’s Champions. But most importantly, Nancy cared for her daughter’s three children: Morgan, 12, Landon, 5, and Mylah, 4.
“As a mother, my biggest concern was what effect this would have on our children,” Lori wrote. “My Mom was able to turn this difficult time into cherished memories the kids will always remember. She made a lasting memory for them and also taught them that difficult things can be handled.”
Nancy often would take time off from her job to stay with Lori and the children, keeping the kids occupied baking cookies, making homemade ice cream and building snowmen. She would keep the kids overnight, to let Lori rest.
“My Mom knew that for me to heal, my kids needed to be loved and nurtured,” Lori wrote. “Mom gave that gift to me.”
Nancy did what she could when chemotherapy treatments caused discomfort and fatigue. Sometimes, when Lori was resting on the couch, Nancy would sit and watch her, wishing she could take away the pain.
“It’s probably one of the most heart-wrenching things a parent has to do, watching your child suffering,” Nancy said.
Her time spent as a caregiver has given Nancy a new insight into what others go through when a loved one is diagnosed with cancer. Being a caregiver was her way of coping.
“I’m just so grateful that my daughter made it through the cancer, and that she’s a cancer survivor,” Nancy said. “I’m just overwhelmed that she thinks that much of me to nominate me as one of Stefanie’s Champions, when I just did that because I’m her Mom.”
CHAMPION: Lowell Berry -- Love Letters
The power of the written word is revealed in the love letters Lowell Berry has written to his wife, Cyndi, during her 19-year battle with breast cancer.
In one letter written shortly after cancer returned to Cyndi, this time in her lung,
Lowell likened their marriage to a strong, old church he had walked past on Broad Street.
“The old church presents such an air of security and solace,” Lowell wrote in June 1998. “I thought how much a loving marriage is like that old church – enduring, comforting, and sometimes a haven from life’s difficulties. A place you know you can go and be loved.”
Lowell reassured his wife that just like that old church, their foundation would “hold strong and true,” and they would weather life’s difficulties together.
For his unwavering love and support, Cyndi, with the help of her friend, Linda Lucas, nominated Lowell to be one of Stefanie’s Champions. Both women wrote letters on his behalf, extolling his virtues as a kind, compassionate and loving caregiver.
“The journey has been very difficult at times, but it has also been very touching and beautiful, for I have witnessed the magic and the power of my husband’s love for me,” Cyndi wrote. “A love deeper and stronger than I ever thought possible.”
Linda calls Lowell a “gem.”
“Lowell has been Cyndi’s rock – solid, stable, firm, steadfast and always there,” wrote Linda, who also is a breast cancer survivor. “He has provided the light when days are darkest, and this light has provided the warmth, comfort and unconditional love that no medication or treatment can.”
Cyndi relies on her husband for strength and inspiration.
“He is always ready to do absolutely anything for me,” Cyndi wrote. “Through the years, Lowell has written many beautiful, heartfelt and uplifting letters to me. These letters have been very special to me.”
The couple look forward to celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in September.
“This award reflects the strength that you build in a long-term relationship,” said Lowell. “I’m sure that if the circumstances were reversed, Cyndi would be doing the same thing for me.”
CHAMPION: Jeff Peterson -- Through Sickness and Health
Sarah Peterson is grateful to many people in her life who have helped her since being diagnosed with a brain tumor just two weeks after delivering a healthy baby girl in May 2004. She is thankful for her parents and her sister, but most of all, for her husband, Jeff.
“He gets to see it all,” Sarah wrote in her Stefanie’s Champions nomination form. “The good, the bad and the ugly. I want him to win this award because I want him to know how much he is appreciated. My whole family appreciates him. They love him. I love him.”
They married on April 25, 2003, and a little more than a year later welcomed their beautiful baby girl, Abigail Grace. Two weeks after the birth, Sarah had an MRI to find out why she had two seizures during her eighth month of pregnancy. The MRI showed a brain tumor. She underwent surgery that July, but the tumor couldn’t be removed.
“It was more than I could swallow,” Sarah wrote. “During recovery, my Mom and Jeff would take turns spending the night with me. On the nights my Mom stayed, my husband would bring our daughter to see me. Even though I was pretty detached at that point, he wanted me to see her – to see what I had to fight for.”
Every day, Sarah is amazed by her husband’s strength, support and patience. For the past 18 months, they have traveled together every four weeks to Duke University for her treatment.
“I wouldn’t be able to do it without him,” she wrote. “I truly know how fortunate I am to have such a great husband. His positive attitude is amazing to me. I always feel better just by talking to him.”
She still remembers how happy they were on their wedding day, just three years ago.
“I knew that he was something pretty special,” she wrote. “But I never thought we’d be tested so soon with the vows we took on that day – ‘through sickness and health.’ He has really kept me going with his love. He is absolutely my angel and my hero.”
Acting as a caregiver has forever changed him.
“It’s challenged me to be the best husband and father possible, because you truly have no idea what life will bring,” Jeff said. “I’m honored to be a part of such a great group of people dealing with similar life challenges.”
CHAMPION: Al Kerze -- Behind the Scenes
Allan R. Kerze is the kind of guy who sees something that needs to be done, and does it, no questions asked, no thanks required.
But this time, he’s getting a great big thank you, courtesy of his wife, Joyce, who nominated him to be one of Stefanie’s Champions. Not only has he supported her during her personal battle with breast cancer in recent years, he has helped hundreds of breast cancer survivors who don’t even know him.
“He has patiently cared for me through the ups and downs,” Joyce wrote. “As I ‘turned the corner’ after completing chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, he supported my involvement in The James Stitching Sisters, and has become one of their strongest supporters.”
The James Stitching Sisters is a quilting project at JamesCare for Life. Volunteers – many of them cancer patients and survivors – create and donate lap quilts to breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. They have already donated more than 450 quilts since last June, and hope to donate 600 quilts this year.
“Al is a silent champion for each of these patients and their families, because he’s been there,” Joyce said. After the first successful Quilting Day last year – an all-day sewing and quilting bee – Allan helped pack up everything and return it to the basement of one of the organizers.
“I dreamed of our own place to expand this ever-growing project,” Joyce wrote. “A place, not only to house our fabric, machines and supplies, but a place for us to gather as we create quilts all year long.”
She shared her dream with her husband, and he made it come true. He drew up a floor plan, peered in windows of empty storefronts and made phone calls. He found the perfect space, and convinced the owner to donate it to the cause.
“He’s moved supplies, furniture, cement blocks and fabric, fabric, fabric,” Joyce wrote. “He’s replaced lots of fluorescent lights, cleaned out air ducts and emptied lots of garbage.”
In March, Allan helped with the second annual Quilting Day.
“I saw it as a very worthwhile cause and something that would benefit both the people who are working with the Stitching Sisters and the patients who are going through chemotherapy,” Al said. “Being a caregiver brings attention to the fact that we’re not going to be here forever, and that we need to support and show our love for one another.”
The couple look forward to celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in September.
CHAMPION: Molly O’Ryan -- Devoted Daughter
When Linda O’Ryan learned from her doctor that she had acute mylogenous leukemia she “fell apart right there at work.”
Luckily, her daughter, Molly Marie O’Ryan, who works in the same bank office, was there to pick up the pieces of her mother’s shattered life.
“My little Irish girl always made me smile,” Linda wrote as she nominated her daughter to become one of Stefanie’s Champions. “Little did I know that Molly Marie O’Ryan would become a force to reckon with as I began my fight for life.”
That night in April 2003, Linda was admitted to the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute at The Ohio State University. Within 5 days, she was unconscious, running a fever of 106 and in total kidney failure caused by another blood disorder. It was up to Molly to make tough life-or-death decisions for her mother.
During the first month, Molly visited her mom daily in the hospital, and continued making important medical decisions. She handled the mountains of paperwork associated with being hospitalized, along with work-related paperwork to set up short-term and long-term disability during Linda’s six-month treatment regimen.
“This was a complete role reversal,” Molly said. “It’s very strange when you become the parent and you’re taking care of everything that your parent used to do. It was hard at first to accept the responsibility, but God gives us strength that we never knew we had. You get through it, and become a stronger person for having gone through something like this.”
Once Linda was well enough to go home, Molly took care of her, cleaning and cooking and other household chores. She coordinated friends and family who transported Linda to the James three times a week for blood work after each round of chemotherapy.
“I was too weak to get even get out of bed on many days,” Linda wrote. “She made sure I was safe. My leukemia is gone today almost three years later. But my hero continues to forever watch for signs that Mom needs help. I had a miracle happen.”
Being a caregiver has given Molly a new perspective on life.
“Your priorities definitely shift, and family becomes the most important thing in your life – not work. When you’re caring for somebody 24/7, you realize how much they mean to you, and what a loss it would be if they weren’t there anymore.”
CHAMPION: Steven Salazar -- Unwavering Faith and Devotion
Even as a child, Steven Salazar trusted that his faith would always be there for him. “This amazing faith helped pull our family through my battle with breast cancer,” wrote Heather Salazar as she nominated her husband to be one of Stefanie’s Champions. “God sent him just for me.”
The two met during college while working with inner-city children to empower them to stay in school. They married in February 1993 and started raising a family: Christian, 11, Caleb, 8, and Cara, 5.
In 2002, Heather met a young mother named Alexis who had advanced breast cancer and needed to find a good home for her baby. Alexis didn’t want her baby to be placed in foster care.
“I prayed about this for three days and then told Steve I thought we were supposed to adopt her,” Heather wrote.“Needless to say, five weeks later we had a new baby.”
For the next year, they spent countless hours with Alexis, offering her comfort and support, and taking her to chemotherapy and doctor appointments. They also made sure Alexis spent as much time as possible with her baby, Lexi, who is now 4. Alexis died one year later at age 23.
Two years later, in February 2005, Heather found a lump in her breast and was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 31.
“All I could think of is seeing Alexis die from this terrible disease,” Heather wrote. “Every day when I was full of fear,
Steve would pray over me. He remained a pillar of strength for both the kids and me; he continually told the kids that God would take care of our family.”
Steve’s unwavering faith helped the family cope during Heather’s treatment and recovery. After her double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, Steve slept on a cot in the hospital, never leaving her side. During her recovery, he kept a semblance of normalcy in their household, all the while encouraging her never to give up.
“There’s no way I could have done this without God,” Steve said.
“I’m not a caregiver. I don’t like to take care of anyone when they’re sick. I never would have dreamed that I could clean her drains and change her dressings, but I have,” he said.
“I made a promise that I’d let God take me through this. I’ve been able to trust in God that he’ll take care of it, and no matter what happens, it will work out the way that God wants.”