Victory Bird: A Cancer Recovery Story (Part 1 – The Beginning)

Beauty in the form of Brooke

Beauty in the form of Brooke

I met Brooke my Junior year in college. We were both students working at the same bar in between our studies. To be honest, I was skeptical about her at first. I mean, who is that happy all the time?! Surely there was something wrong with her… but no. Brooke wasn’t faking her carefree demeanor. She just made the choice to be happy, regardless of circumstance. Just because everything isn’t perfect, doesn’t mean you have to let it bring you down. She is the one who taught me how to make that daily choice – the choice to be happy.

On one of our road trips - this one was in Tennessee. Not much has changed!

On one of our road trips – this one was in Tennessee. Not much has changed!


Brooke and I at the Waco zoo. We never could resist a good cheesy picture

Brooke and I at the Waco zoo. We never could resist a good cheesy picture

We aren’t so different now that we are older, but maybe we were a little more “wild”, and just a little more silly back then. We went out and met interesting new people, we stayed in and watched goofy movies, we took awesome road trips and did fun art projects. We were never bored, and we were never boring.

We graduated college and moved on to other things and to different places, but continued to stay in touch and visit each other at every opportunity.

Visiting Brooke when she lived in Boston

Visiting Brooke when she lived in Boston

The best thing about Brooke is that she doesn’t have to rely on small talk. If you know her at all you know that she skips the weather talk and goes right to the heart of it all. We could go a year without seeing each other, finally get together, and within minutes jump to discussions about our connection to humanity, our purpose in life and the existence of God. If you don’t want to dig deep, don’t talk to Brooke.

One drawback of Brooke’s beauty and altruistic nature is that occasionally people discount the beauty of her Self and attempt to take advantage. I found myself pulling her out of situations more than once (she did the same for me many times as well, but that’s a whole different blog post). In a way I feel like the lesson of loving with authority has been her purpose in this world, because she has been tested on this one thing again and again. I saw her go through some challenging situations but she came out on top time after time. She never stopped believing that something better was around the corner, always keeping faith. Through the years I have watched her learn how to stand up for herself – bully after bully – and refuse to be a doormat, all while maintaining a smile.
Then, when it seemed she had finally perfected the craft of gentle strength, came the biggest bully we never expected. Cancer, in the form of a brain tumor.

Brooke has spent a lot of time in this room, healing.

Brooke has spent a lot of time in this room, healing.

It still seems surreal to even say it. When I found out I remember being completely in denial, thinking that this was temporary. This was no big deal – She’d take some medicine and be fine. I spoke with her on the phone and her candid honesty hit me hard as she told me that she was supported, but afraid. My heart sank when her mom described the seizure, the concussion and the MRI that identified the mass in her brain. The plan was to take a biopsy the next day. I gathered my things quickly, left the kids with my husband, picked up a few of our mutual friends and headed up to the hospital to meet her in the hospital chapel.

When I got there I was amazed at the community that surrounded her. Her mom had come immediately and was there by her side. A good number of friends from her church were there. The addition of myself and those with me made the crowd seem complete. We sang, we prayed, and we took communion together. The tiny St. David’s Chapel shimmered with orange and purple light as the sun set. Everyone’s faces were smeared with tears. Tears of sadness, love and hope. Seeing Brooke so vulnerable in that moment, taking in every bit of positivity that she could, I wanted to take her in my arms. I wanted to hold her like I hold my babies. I wanted to kiss her head so she would leap from my lap with the power of kisses that heal children. Kisses might not work for brain tumors, but it didn’t stop me from trying. When there was a call to lay hands on her I was there immediately. I could see her comfort in that moment, with so many people pouring every ounce of their energy onto her. I knew doubts might haunt her mind on this journey of recovery, but we were doing good work that evening. The positive power of prayer gave her the light to get through the darkness.

Photo credit to Tim Waters

Photo credit to Tim Waters

That day Brooke’s Face”Brooke” Victory Page blew up with pictures, prayers, bible verses and encouraging images. The outpouring of love was abundant and the group quickly grew to over six hundred members. Six hundred people sharing, loving, praying. Hundreds of strangers sharing the one thing they had in common – they wanted Brooke to heal and feel loved.

The next day she underwent brain surgery as her doctors biopsied the tumor that, if removed, could have rendered her immobile on the left side. As Brooke learned to walk all over again in physical therapy, the outcome started to seem hopeful. The results came back as a low-grade Glioma. Malignant, but slow growing with a good chance of responding well to treatment. Her doctors decided that radiation would be the best approach.

Brooke and her many supporters at the Brain Power 5K

Brooke and her many supporters at the Brain Power 5K


Brooke "runs" the Brain Power 5K Photo Credit: Lisa Hackbarth

Brooke “runs” the Brain Power 5K Photo Credit: Lisa Hackbarth


I went to visit Brooke about a week after the biopsy. She was moving slow, but in good spirits. I arrived just after she had finally been able to bathe and I offered to comb her now clean hair for her. It was therapeutic and calming running that comb through her long, thick hair. I gingerly made my way around the incision, careful not to snag the glue that held the outer layer of her tender skin together. I remember thinking that if love were medicine she would surely be cured. It did not occur to me that it might be a long time until I would be able touch her lustrous locks of hair again.

I don’t really subscribe to the belief that “everything happens for a reason” but I can’t help but think that all of the trials in her life seemed to be training her for this. Brooke is fighting back, and she isn’t giving up. Any inkling of a “doormat” is gone. She has grown into a fully fledged warrior; a Victory Bird.

And we all know: Love wins.

Brooke's signature smile

Brooke’s signature smile

Check in for “Part 2: Making Hair Irrelevant” next week.
To learn more about the Brain Power 5K: http://www.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1058997

A Preemie Story: World Prematurity Day

Cassie has an infectious smile

Cassie has an infectious smile

Cassie is a beautiful, vibrant and curious baby girl of about 18 months, and is the youngest of five children. Her arrival, however, was much different from her siblings. The celebration of her life had to be balanced with the trauma of her birth.

Nan, Cassie’s mom, had only experienced natural, drug-free birth before then. Her water broke early – too early – at 31 weeks. She went to the hospital and was put on strict bed rest hoping to keep baby girl in for just a few more weeks, but Cassie had her own plans. At 32 weeks pregnant Nan was whisked to the operating room for a C-Section – with Cassie’s leg already through the birth canal. The procedure was complicated by the protruding limb, but after much work by the surgeons Cassie was born weighing in at 3 pounds 14 ounces.

Once Nan began to heal from the surgery she did the hardest thing that one should never have to do – leave their baby at the hospital while they go home.

Nan knew that breast milk would be the best choice for her preemie daughter and her weak immune system, so while she was recovering, and not producing milk yet, Cassie received the blessed gift of donor milk.

Cassie signs "Milk" with her mom

Cassie signs “Milk” with her mom

Nan had an advantage that many moms of preemies don’t have – she had breastfed all four of her previous children. Knowing that she could do it she pumped relentlessly. She hooked herself up every two hours for almost a week. Finally her body responded and she was able to pump her own milk to feed her baby, even though she could not directly breastfeed her. Yet.

As things started to look up Nan and her husband Dan were hit with another obstacle; Cassie was struggling to breathe so she had to be rushed via ambulance to another hospital that was better equipped to help her. This is where the doctors found that she had congenital diaphragmatic hernia, an opening in the diaphragm that allows the stomach and intestines to crowd and affect development of the lungs. At four weeks of age, or what would have been 36 weeks gestation, Cassie had surgery to repair the hernia. Fluid had to be removed from her lungs through a tube multiple times. The breast milk that Nan had been pumping had to be processed by the milk bank to remove the fat so that Cassie’s system could properly digest the nutrients as her diaphragm, stomach and intestines healed.

Cassie still gets important nutrients for her immune system though extended breastfeeding

Cassie still gets important nutrients for her immune system though extended breastfeeding

Nan and Dan took turns being with Cassie in the hospital, having to explain to their older children that they could not visit their little sister. Finally, at two months old, Cassie went home. Her homecoming marked what would have been her original estimated due date.

Cassie and all of her siblings - photo credit to Jennifer Ricca and Deltona Markel.

Cassie and all of her siblings – photo credit to Jennifer Ricca and Deltona Markel.

Nan struggled to get Cassie to latch properly but persevered and is still nursing today. In fact, in her efforts to pump enough milk to keep up with Cassie she actually ended up having so much extra milk that she was able to donate two gallons back to the Milk Bank. She told me that it was a great feeling to be able to help other mothers who might be overwhelmed with the challenges of beginning a breastfeeding relationship with a preemie.

The peaceful face of a full baby after a nursing session

The peaceful face of a full baby after a nursing session

When I met with Nan in August to take these pictures for National Breastfeeding Month Cassie was 18 months old and had just been diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy in her legs. She was not walking independently yet (it sure didn’t stop her from getting around, though!) and was just learning to use her walker. The image of her with her new apparatus is so beautiful and shiny that it inspired the nickname “Golden Girl”.

Cassie is all smiles as she learns to walk with assistance

Cassie is all smiles as she learns to walk with assistance

Since then Cassie has progressed with the help of physical therapy and can finally walk short distances independently. While her lungs may never function like yours or mine, she is tenacious and has so much to offer the world. Her smile is so bright and innocent that you can’t help but look past her challenges and see the beauty and joy that she brings to her family and friends.

If you are interested in learning more about supporting parents of preemies or breast milk donation check out these links:
http://www.parentsofpreemiesday.org/main.html
http://www.marchofdimes.com/mission/world-prematurity-day.aspx
http://www.milkbank.org/

Normalizing: A Happy Breastfeeding in Public Story

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Breastfeeding in Public

Yesterday my family went to eat and play at Southpark Meadows. My three-and-a-half-year-old daughter waltzed around the empty stage and made a new friend, a(n almost) two-year-old boy. I wore my six-month-old on my chest as I sat with my husband and the boy’s dad, laughing and taking pictures while our kids did the most adorable little dance together. As the mom and pop-arazzi took their shots, up walked the little boy’s mom.

She was nursing a seven-week-old baby boy using a cover. The show stopped and the dancing fiends came over to us as we all started to chat. My daughter – who has never seen me breastfeed with a cover – soon realized there was a baby under there and started trying to peek in through the top and lift the edges so she could see the tiny baby. I swiftly grabbed her hand and reminded her about privacy, concerned that she was going to embarrass the little boy’s mom.

“I’m so sorry, she is so used to seeing me nurse that she doesn’t realize you might not want to show yourself,” I apologize.

To my surprise the nursing momma tells me, “If it’s ok with you it doesn’t bother me if she looks.”

I let go of my daughter’s hand and tell her it is OK to look. She lifts the cover, sticks her ENTIRE head in there and looks at the little baby, still latched on.

“Aaaawwwwwwwwww! CUTE baby!” She squeals.

Then… nothing. There was no talk of breasts, milk or how babies eat. She made no judgement on her new friend’s exposed breast, how her baby ate or the choices she made. Just an observation of how cute that tiny little baby was and then we all moved on with our conversation.

It struck me later how insignificant this was to my daughter because breastfeeding is so NORMAL to her. I am so thankful to this mom, whom I didn’t even know, for being open to sharing her nursing experience with my daughter so that I could witness this beautiful “nothing.”

What if we lived in a world where women could breastfeed their babies, exposed, in public, and the only whisper to be heard would be, “Awwwwwwww! What a cute baby!”

Normalize breastfeeding. It works.

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You can also find this story here: http://keepaustinnip.blogspot.com/2013/09/happy-breastfeeding-in-public-story.html#links