Friday, March 10, 2017

This Is What It Looks Like When Cancer Gets Real

By Kara Uhl 
Jennifer Fields Summer. 
Late January, Fort Thomas resident Deb Reker, commonly knowns as “Aunt Deb,” was doing what Aunt Deb does—fixing things via small acts of kindness.

She was helping out Fort Thomas resident Jennifer Fields Summer, whom she helped raise, by taking Jenn’s son, 12-year-old Dakota, to school. It was dark, and Aunt Deb misunderstood the crossing guard’s hand movements. “I did the wrong thing,” Aunt Deb says. “I was basically in traffic time-out with Judy the Crossing Guard.” 

Aunt Deb admires the city’s crossing guards, whom she says basically keeps the entire city under control school mornings. So as she sat in traffic time-out, and cars went around her, she respected the discipline she received. But Aunt Deb’s a fixer. And after talking to the parents of Dakota’s friends, she realized misunderstanding the black-gloved hand movements was a common issue in early morning darkness. So, Aunt Deb took it upon herself to acquire 12 pairs of reflective gloves to donate to the city.

Little did she know that on that cold January morning, donating crossing guard gloves would be the smallest of acts of kindness she would impart in the months ahead.

Soon her world, Dakota’s world, and Jenn’s world would be turned completely upside down.

Remember how Aunt Deb was helping out Jenn, by taking Dakota to school, the morning of the traffic time-out incident? That’s because 38-year-old Jenn had been experiencing extreme dizziness and an overall unwell feeling. So Aunt Deb hatched a plan. She would come over to Jenn’s house at 6:45 a.m., make Dakota breakfast and take him to school. Then Aunt Deb was going to take Jenn to her house, and then to the doctor.

The doctor did a thorough exam and everything checked out—visual checks, neuro checks, her temperature. It was assumed Jenn had an inner ear infection of sorts, and was ordered to treat it with vertigo protocol, which meant no driving. She was sent home.

Aunt Deb took Jenn back to her house, where she ordered her to lie in bed and not move. Aunt Deb picked up Dakota after school, helped him with his homework and cooked supper, and took them both back to their house in the late evening. They repeated this process for a week. But still, Jenn wasn’t getting better.

Let’s pause here, to talk about Jenn. Jenn is an artist. A Highlands High School graduate she studied photography at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh and studied at Northern Kentucky University. She recently was hired as a writer and photographer at EBTH, an estate sale marketplace. She also does freelance family photography and boudoir photography and her photos are stunningly dreamy, iridescent and stay with you long after you’ve stopped looking at them. She’s bold, brash and kind, in words and action, and fiercely in love with her son. She writes for Fort Thomas Matters, our city beat. She covers public hearings and tax hikes and all the things that seem so nebulous and confusing. She’s our friend, and a friend to so many. Her tribe runs deep, a testament to her character and beauty, both inward and out.

Aunt Deb knew Jenn had had a monumentally tough year, which included the death of her best friend. So she was trying to give Jenn the space she needed.

But then, Jenn’s son, Dakota, spoke up. At karate he told Aunt Deb that he was worried she was enabling his mom, pointing out that she had no fever, she wasn’t throwing up—she was just dizzy. Aunt Deb wondered if he had a point. But none of it was like Jenn. Everything was so uncharacteristic. Everything was off.

But Aunt Deb took Dakota’s words to heart, and so she pushed Jenn a bit. “Jenn,” she said. “I need for you to say that I need to get better. I need you to ask, ‘Why am I not getting better?’ I need you to say, ‘I need to go back to work. I’ve got to go to Dakota’s concert.’” 

Nothing.

Dakota said, “This isn’t like mama.”

So Aunt Deb, the fixer of things, hatched another plan. She’d show Jenn tough love through Dakota. Dakota broke his toe right before his black belt test. “So he is sitting there and I am giving him this really harsh lesson—curiously, he picks up on it. I said, ‘You test on Saturday and you broke your toe. Big deal. We will wrap it and I don’t want to hear any whining about it. Sometimes we have to boost ourselves up in life to push through.’”

They looked at Jenn. Nothing.

Back to the reflective gloves. Throughout all this Aunt Deb had been busying herself with finding someone to donate 12 pairs of reflective gloves. And she did.

She turned to Travis Caldwell, manager of Highland Heights Lowes. Travis had actually helped Aunt Deb years ago, with something else she was trying to fix. Remember Brendan Keefe’s WCPO story “Circle of Heroes” in 2009? It won an Emmy (which Brendan gave to Aunt Deb).

You can watch it here.

Aunt Deb with the Emmy given to her. FTM file. 
The story was about a house fire, and a good Samaritan, Mexican immigrant Adolfo Valle, who, after taking a wrong turn while going to the grocery, heard the family’s screams, went in and pulled them out—with no concern for his own safety. Once safe, he vanished, only to be found later after a Cincinnati Enquirer article about the incident came out, seeking the “angel” who saved three lives.

Aunt Deb read the article as well. And then she did what she does, which is fix things. She petitioned the City of Newport to help the family whose house was destroyed, and to honor Adolfo Valle. “Know that goodness is out there,” she said in a speech during the city’s honoring of Adolfo. “And it is contagious. It is truly contagious.” 

When WCPO ran the story Aunt Deb was working tirelessly to find the family a new home and to get it furnished, further expanding the circle of heroes. She also was helping Adolfo get his citizenship and his dream job—that of a firefighter.

Back in 2009 Travis Caldwell helped Aunt Deb help that family. And so, when Aunt Deb asked him about the reflective gloves, he didn’t even hesitate. He told her to grab whatever she needed. So Aunt Deb did.

At this point it’s Tuesday, the last day of January. The night before everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Jenn’s dog had a seizure. The toilet overflowed. The house was a wreck. But Jenn was blank. Sitting on the couch. Not saying a word. She had no reaction to a set of circumstances that would put the most-put-together mom over-the-edge. Aunt Deb described Jenn as close to catatonic. And, she could no longer walk straight.

By Wednesday, Jenn was projectile vomiting. Aunt Deb’s a nurse. She knew the danger of this development. “I said, ‘This is it, we are going back to the doctor now.’”

But again, everything checked out normal. The doctor suggested a blood test, but Jenn is terrified of needles. So they suggested the ER. There they could do an entire panel and get some fluids in her. Perhaps it’s depression, Aunt Deb thought. Perhaps she’s dehydrated.

But as Aunt Deb helped Jenn change into her hospital gown, the color drained from her face.

“The minute I saw her breast, being a medical person, I didn’t need any other test,” Aunt Deb says. “I knew that she had a brain tumor. I knew exactly what was going on. Because everything fit. Jenn couldn’t talk because she couldn’t find her words. She couldn’t even get her words out.”

Aunt Deb describes it as locked-in syndrome. “It’s where you are totally aware of what is going on around you, but you can’t express yourself,” she says. “A lot of times a lot of head injury patients have this. But she was completely conscious of what was going on.”

Jenn speaks up now, about the house on Tuesday night. “I was screaming in my head,” she says. “Oh my God, this house is a mess and I have to clean this up and holy shit, what is wrong with me? But I could not. I couldn’t get any of those words out.”

The doctors came by and confirmed that Jenn was dehydrated. “Stop right now,” Aunt Deb told them. “I need to talk to you.”

Upon the news, Aunt Deb says every medical person’s face registered the same. “It was just shock,” she says. “It was textbook.” 

Jenn had been having trouble with her left breast since August 2015, but didn’t tell anyone—including Aunt Deb. It started simply enough, with some redness. But as it got worse, and as many other things were going on in her personal life, she was simply too afraid to address it. Turns out, she had breast cancer. And it had spread.

They did a CAT scan of Jenn’s brain, which revealed a golf-ball-sized brain tumor on Jenn’s brain stem. The tumor was on the inside of the brain, literally eating it. It had to be removed.

If the tumor had been discovered a week or two later, Jenn would have been dead.

The doctors immediately gave Jenn medicine to reduce the brain swelling (she was retaining spinal fluid) and within two doses she could talk. Soon after, her balance was restored. This was all good news.

But now the brain tumor needed to be removed. On February 3 Jenn had a breast biopsy and a port placed. On February 5 she was transferred to St. Elizabeth Edgewood and on February 6, Jenn, who a few days earlier was deathly afraid of needles, had brain surgery.

“She had a good surgeon and they got it,” Aunt Deb says. “They got it all.”

Of the brain tumor on her brain stem, that is. There are still two additional, smaller tumors on her brain, and the cancer was detected in her spinal cord, bones, liver, chest and, of course, where it originated, her breast.

Jenn spent four days in surgical ICU, some additional days in a regular recovery room and then was sent home. She’s now continuing her treatment—first radiation on her entire brain, and then her breast—at Good Samaritan Hospital in Cincinnati.

There’s no single protocol for cancer treatment. Rather how the body responds to one thing dictates the next thing. But for now the plan is daily radiation followed by chemotherapy for 12 weeks.

Jenn has metastatic Stage IV breast cancer. It can’t be cured, but it can be controlled.

“And maybe they will find a cure while they are controlling it,” Jenn says.

That is right,” Aunt Deb says. “They feel that she will have a good quality to her life and she will be able to return to work and live the life she wants to live.”

Since this time, Jenn’s personal circle of heroes has grown, beyond Aunt Deb. Friends have shown an outpouring of support, through meals, handwritten letters, cards, flowers, messages, positive thoughts and love. Good Samaritan Hospital offers a program where folks can create and send a card to patients online. The hospital prints the cards and delivers them to patients. Jenn received so many cards, the printer broke.

Through her circle of heroes Jenn has been accepted to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She can’t travel yet, but this acceptance will give her an even better shot at controlling the cancer.

Since Jenn’s return from the hospital Aunt Deb hasn’t left her side. They sleep in the same room together. And they’ve promised: No more secrets.

And Jenn? Well, Jenn’s been amazing. Aunt Deb said not once has she questioned the process. “She follows the process, she trusts the process and what is going on and she does everything,” Aunt Deb says. “And, I swear to God this is incredible to me, she hasn’t complained once. About anything.” 

Jenn has health insurance, through her job at EBTH, but still, everything is expensive—especially the trial she hopes to participate in at MD Anderson. For example, the cream Aunt Deb has been using on Jenn’s breast in between dressings? It’s $105 a tube, and they go through one and a half tubes a week.

So how can we, as a community, help Jenn?

• Consider a donation to help with medical expenses. Her friend (another hero in her circle) set up a YouCaring page here: [https://www.youcaring.com/jennifersummer-761996].

• Wear a bracelet. Send a self-addressed envelope with two stamps to Deb Reker at 52 Wilburs Lane, Fort Thomas, KY 41075. She’ll mail you one.

Seriously. She'll send you one. 
• Send positive thoughts. Especially when you see a crossing guard wearing reflective gloves. With each wave of the hand, send positive thoughts.

• And, from Jenn personally, get checked. If you see anything amiss with your breast, get checked. Don’t let your fears delay you.

“We all have journeys in life, some easy, some hard,” Aunt Deb says. “It is never a contest because each journey is unique and personal. We cannot choose our journey, but we can choose how we navigate it, as a challenge, a burden, a curse, a gift, etc. We are the master of our journey. Jenn is having a tough time right this minute. But she is strong.”

3 comments:

  1. I love you fiercely and always, Jenn. And, Deb? I aspire to be you. Crying my ass off from this piece, sending rays of love and light. Sharon

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  2. Jenn, I am getting checked out Monday because of you! Was going to ignore it and hope for the best, but not now!

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  3. I truly want to thank everyone for sending all sorts of meaningful gifts,making meals,donations, positive energy, love, healing thoughts and many, many prayers. I am overwhelmed by every aspect of this situation, but so positively by the out pouring of love and support. I have been truly humbled from a medical,physical, emotional, and spiritual standpoint. When humbled, things we take for granted dramatically change. Everyday takes on new meaning. Gratitude becomes the main word in your vocabulary and even the tiniest bit of good news calls for celebration. Thank you all for he blessing of your friendship and concern!! How can Jenn not beat this, right?
    Aunt Deb
    xoxox

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