Crisis Mode Calling

Receiving care with grace and gratitude

by Gwen Ellis

“How many people can you call when you are in crisis mode?” my counselor asked. “You know, the kind you can call in the middle of the night?”

“Ah, one, maybe two,” I told her.

“That’s not enough. You need at least 20.”

My mouth dropped open. Twenty? Did I even have 20 friends, much less 20 I could call in an emergency situation?

“You need that many because maybe two-thirds of them will be unavailable at the time of your crisis,” the counselor said. “Start working on building those relationships.”

Shortly after this conversation, I moved halfway across the country on my own for the first time in nearly 30 years. I remembered what the counselor had said and began building bridges and networks of friends. It was a good thing I did. Three years later I was diagnosed with life-threatening ovarian cancer. Nobody, including my physician, expected me to live beyond two years. I decided I could only live one day at a time and if I lived enough of them, I just might live to be an old woman.

My adult children, my brother, a niece, a dear friend, Joyce, whom I had met when I moved to the new city, waited as I was wheeled into surgery. It was to them that the surgeon made the both good and bad pronouncements. I did have ovarian cancer, but while it should have spread, it had not. It was still contained in my abdomen. I’m born of independent Montana stock. For most of my life, going it alone had been a motto. Now a life-threatening illness meant I was surrounded by people eager to care for me. But could I receive care? Some of my deepest, most long-lasting relationships were born during my walk into the valley of the shadow of death.

Denial and Determination

One simple act helped me immensely in facing reality. My friend, Traci, and her friend, Susan, came to the hospital to visit. They had just come from the annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony in the square. Part of that tree lighting was the opportunity to give a donation to light a bulb for someone who had cancer. Traci and Susan lit one for me. When Traci told me that, I was stunned. It was for me that a cancer remembrance bulb had been lit. I had cancer. I could no longer pretend it was not true. I had cancer. From that moment on the denial stopped, and the determination to overcome and live was born.

About this time an author I knew personally called me and put me in touch with his twin brother who was a doctor at the National Institutes of Health. At the time Dr. Jeff was studying how genetics play a part in ovarian cancer. I called him, and he suggested how he would treat me if I were his patient. He even said that if I couldn’t get the care I needed where I was located, I could come to NIH and he would treat me there. It never came to that. I had wonderful care, but just knowing I had an option gave me confidence that if I didn’t make it, it wouldn’t be because of poor medicine.

My daughter stayed on after the surgery to care for me during the next month while other family members returned to their jobs and lives. I spent eleven days in the hospital and missed Thanksgiving. My friends decided that when I was strong enough, they would come to my home and celebrate. Thanksgiving that year for me happened in January of the next year. I also started chemo in January. Talk about helpless. I truly was. Four days of chemo, then a weekend of nausea, and then back to work on Monday became the routine. That’s when I had to call for friends to take me to work and bring me home again. Again and again throughout the next six months, I had to ask for rides and help for all kinds of things.

Then there was a dark and stormy night (literally) when I had a port installed directly into an artery so that drugs could be pumped in without so many needle pokes. It was an outpatient procedure, but I didn’t do well. I was so sick and my friend Jennifer stayed with me at the hospital, drove me home through the snowy landscape, and even spent the night with me to make sure I would be all right. I loved her for that act and many others. She visited me recently, and both our minds slid back to that cold night when life was so iffy.

Others came to stay overnight throughout the ordeal, and Joyce took me to her home after a particularly brutal treatment period. I lay on her couch all afternoon barely able to raise my head and that was just fine with her. Some brought food and had dinner with me when I could eat. Traci brought her juicer, and I extracted health-giving fruit and vegetable juices during the next eight months.

Some people are reticent to share their journey through a serious illness. Not me. I figured I needed all the help I could get. And that counselor’s voice kept ringing in my ear—20 emergency buddies. This was in the days before social media or even e-mails. (Yes, I have survived that long.) So I put out a newsletter to people I knew whom I thought might pray for me. I sent one out about every other month letting them know my progress. The cards and responses they sent me went into a basket where I could take them out and read them when I felt low. I think there might have been about 200 people praying for me.

Ferocity and Faith

Months wore on, and the weather began to warm. The wig I wore became miserable. It was hot and itchy, but my pride demanded I wear it. Finally, it was time for the last round of chemo and I dreaded it. My daughter had said, “Doctors figure out how much chemo will kill you and they stop just short of that.” That’s where I was. I didn’t want to go for the last round of treatment. Then a friend called me and told me her experience—how hard it had been for her to go to that last treatment. I could do it, she said. I could make it. Something about that call put me over the top. I went and in a few days, I finished the chemo. My hair would soon start coming back.

How could I turn away from so much love from so many friends and just abandon hope?

I survived. It has been 21 years, and I am about to become an old lady. I’m fighting aging all the way with good nutrition and lots of exercise. My upbringing as a fiercely independent Montanan taught me to extract life with bare hands—to pull it from the earth, pick it from bushes, and take it from the woods. That ferocity for life stood me in good stead when the grim reaper came after me. But more than that, my strong faith in a God who loved me and who had placed people in my life to surround me and help me during one of the darkest, loneliest places an illness can take you—that faith and those friendships held me strong.

None of us knows what comes next. It could be fame and success, prosperity and great joy. It could also be illness, injury, sorrow, and maybe even poverty. Whatever lies out there, just beyond the bend on our road of life, is going to be better when friends and family share it with you. It’s good to be able to call out in the darkness and feel another’s hand groping for yours to pull you up to a stable place and hold you steady until you can go on by yourself.

So if you are one who tends to “go it alone,” is it time to reevaluate that idea? I could have despaired to the point of giving up and letting the illness take me. On the other hand, how could I turn away from so much love from so many friends and just abandon hope? My physicians told me that attitude was about 95 percent of recovering from an illness such as mine and I was earning an A+ in attitude. How could I do less when I had one hand in God’s and the other linked to a long line of people who stood with me for months and years?

Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter:
whoever finds one has found a treasure.

Faithful friends are beyond price;
no amount can balance their worth.

Faithful friends are life-saving medicine;
and those who fear the Lord will find them.

—Sirach 6:14–16

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