By Josh Jarman
Can you remember the last time you made a promise? Outside of our marriage vows, most of us do not like to think much about promises because they remind us of our past failed personal attempts to watch less television or to floss with more regularity. Despite our best intentions, if given the option to take the easy road or the hard road in life, we all tend to revert back to the path of least resistance.
Stephanie Pate Greer, the Director of Behavioral Health at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS), knows firsthand the danger of complacency. She and her team of nurses, therapists, crisis interventionists and psychiatrists have made a collective and unwavering commitment to always provide high quality behavioral health services in the High Country. For Stephanie, it was a promise made in heartbreak, steeped in love and maintained by her uncompromising resolve.
It takes a village
Stephanie with her mother Geneva Pate at Pope’s Family Center in Newland NC
Stephanie could run the cash register and count back change at 6 years old. It was at her mother, Geneva Pate’s side that she proudly learned the fundamentals of customer service while working at Pope’s Family Center in Newland, NC. In a town with only two traffic lights, she quickly became well-acquainted with everyone in her “Mayberry-esque” community. Between customers she liked to spend her hard-earned wages on peach Nehi and Whatchamacallit candy bars from the neighboring Avery True Value Hardware store.
She also enjoyed spending quality time with her father, Dallas, a retired North Carolina State Trooper, who she considers to be the most influential person in her life. Some of her fondest memories took place in his patrol car, where she was allowed to run the radar detector, wear his trooper hat and just spend quality time with her favorite law enforcement officer.
Stephanie Greer with her father Dallas Pate in front of his patrol car
“While we were ‘out on patrol’ dad also taught me a lot about life,” she shared. “Integrity was very important to my father. He taught me that in this life we are not entitled to anything. But with hard work, we can absolutely accomplish whatever goal is set before us. He also taught me that your word is your bond and that a promise made should be a promise kept.”
Stephanie was named Most Spirited in her high school annual. It was there that she competed in softball, cheerleading, public speaking and in other events as a part of Future Farmers of America, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Business Leaders of America and in the Student Government Association.
She credits her zeal for life to her faith in God. “I think it is a normal part of human behavior to mess up from time to time. But when you discover that you have a God that loves you, and literally a village of people like ours supporting you, I think it brings out the best in people.”
Stephanie with bear cub on Grandfather Mountain
Throughout high school and college Stephanie worked on Grandfather Mountain. It was there that she started in the gift shop and then transferred to the role of zookeeper. In that position, she was tasked to take care of the black bear, cougar, white-tailed deer, golden eagle, and bald eagle habitats.
“Little did I know it at the time, but learning how to change my demeanor to accommodate where I was proved to be great foundational training for the work I do today in behavioral health,” she said. “I’ll never forget the first time I went into the cougar habitat. I was told to expect the 115-pound cat to pounce on me. I was told to face the cougar and to knock the animal back; this would in effect quickly establish who the alpha was in the situation. Sure enough, the cat leapt and I did everything wrong. I turned my back and screamed. I think we all do that at some point in our lives.”
Determined, she went back to the cougar habitat a few days later to face her fears. This time, when the animal pounced, she held her ground – a lesson learned and a fear conquered.
Lost and found
Stephanie’s interest in healthcare developed after she injured her knee cheerleading and had to endure multiple surgeries followed by physical therapy. Inspired by her own healthcare experience, she went onto Western Carolina University to study recreational therapy.
Her program required a four month onsite clinical internship. Stephanie chose to complete her internship at Broughton Psychiatric Hospital because it was close to home and more importantly close to her parent’s refrigerator.
“I was the first intern allowed to work on the adult acute-care admissions unit,” she said. “I learned quickly that at a state psychiatric hospital you see people at their lowest and sickest points. I also learned that there is absolutely no difference in the human beings in need of behavioral healthcare and you and me save a few circumstances. Circumstances could be life or chemical related, but they are still just circumstances. They are still people. A group of people grossly misunderstood and under advocated for. I had found my passion.”
Stephanie was hired as the recreational therapy supervisor for adult acute-care admissions at Broughton Hospital when she turned 21. Admittedly, it was a big job, and she leaned on her more seasoned staff to help her develop new programs, such as the first treatment mall, a school equivalent for patients suffering from mental illness. During that time, she was promoted several times and she went on to complete her Master’s in Business Administration at Gardner-Webb University.
Her hardest lesson learned however took place one day when she heard screams coming down the hallway of her unit. She raced to find a patient who had committed suicide on her watch. Devastated, she admitted to the patient’s family that despite checking-all-of-the-boxes in terms of safety and therapy, she viewed it as a personal failure. Through tears she made a promise to herself and to that patient’s family that she would never again be satisfied with just checking the boxes.
“By the very nature of working in behavioral health, you know that things like this can happen,” she shared. “But we have to be vigilant to guard against it. We can never be content or complacent. I made a promise that day and I was determined to keep it.”
After months of mounting pressure from a family friend, Stephanie finally agreed to go on a blind date with Allan, a Boone Police Officer.
“I was so nervous about the whole blind date thing that I made Allan pick me up from my parent’s house,” she said. “He then took me to see a church play, I figured that was a pretty safe first date. We got married a year later and never looked back.”
Fast forward 10 years. Allan had become a State Trooper, Stephanie was well entrenched in her role at Broughton, they now had two children and were “settled” in every sense of the word when she received a call from a headhunter in Arizona to inform her that a Director of Behavioral Health position had opened in Linville, NC. Assuming that she was unfamiliar with the area, the recruiter went on to try to “sell” the mountain community to his client. Stephanie smiled in a moment of serendipitous delight at the thought of returning home to her beloved Avery County.
She was hired for the position at Cannon Memorial Hospital by Carmen Lacey, now president of the hospital and a lifelong friend; and Chuck Mantooth, President and CEO of ARHS.
“I’ll never forget my first day on January 27, 2008,” she said. “It was an ice-storm and everything in town had shut down, but I knew that I had to get to work, especially on my first day by 8 a.m. So we parked my car at the bottom of our hill the night before and I made it in on time, an hour before everyone else. I guess you could say that I was eager to get started.”
Meeting a need
And so it was that the behavioral health department formed at ARHS. Within her first year she reopened a 10-bed inpatient behavioral health unit in the hospital. This unit is fully equipped to provide psychiatric evaluation, medication management, individualized treatment planning and group therapy.
She also revamped outpatient behavioral health services to improve access to adult, child and family therapy. The outpatient program started with 12 patients and now maintains a caseload of more than 1300 individuals from across the High Country.
She then launched the Behavioral Health Crisis Team in 2011. The mobile crisis team is designed to meet and treat patients at whatever point they access the healthcare system. In many cases, the crisis team has saved patients from having to incur costly and unnecessary emergency department visits.
Despite these milestone achievements, the demand for behavioral health services continues to rise in North Carolina. As the only inpatient behavioral health facility within a 40-mile radius, Cannon Memorial Hospital receives more than 5,000 psychiatric referrals from across the state each year. Of those, the hospital is only able to admit an average of 560 patients into its 10-bed inpatient unit.
To help meet this need, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) recently awarded Cannon Memorial Hospital with a $6.5 million grant, to expand the availability of behavioral health beds in the western region of North Carolina. The funding for this grant originated from the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Fund, which was created by the North Carolina General Assembly from the sale of Dorothea Dix Hospital in 2015.
“This grant was an answered prayer for our community,” she said. “Not only does this create an opportunity in Avery County for us to continue to meet the medical needs of the community, but it also allows us to have an opportunity to expand and improve access to much needed behavioral health services.”
After months of careful planning, construction began last month to expand outpatient behavioral health services. Additionally, the grant will be used to create a designated 37-bed inpatient psychiatric unit within Cannon Memorial Hospital.
Thanks to other funding sources, the medical side of the hospital is also getting an upgrade. Once the two-and-a-half year construction project is complete, Cannon Memorial Hospital will operate as a Critical Access Hospital, fully equipped with a state-of-the-art inpatient 8-bed medical unit to meet the needs of the community. In addition to behavioral health services and inpatient medical care, the hospital will continue to provide imaging, laboratory, primary care, surgery, rehabilitation and cardiopulmonary services. This full-service medical campus will continue to serve as the hub of healthcare in Avery County.
“I live less than a mile from here,” she said. “So it goes without saying that it is important for me and my family to have access to good medical services. In a community of our size, it is unheard of to have access to primary care, preventative health and wellness care, behavioral health care and all of our specialty care. It is truly a blessing that I don’t think people in our community fully grasp.”
For Stephanie, everything goes back to that little girl behind the cash register with her mom. At an early age she fell in love with this community and she takes great pride in providing for its needs.
“My hope and prayer is that as we grow our services, the High Country will come to see that these patients are nothing more than our friends and our family members,” she said. “Unlike every other diagnosis, there seems to be a stigma or fear to talk about behavioral health. But the truth is that one-in-four adults will suffer every year from a diagnosable mental illness. Our goal is to meet these people where they are and to provide them with the care they so desperately need.”
In her office you will find motivational quotes hanging on the walls and pictures of her children prominently displayed on her bookshelf. She is proud to share that Zack, her oldest, is considering a career as a physical therapist. And that Reagan “Bob”, her 12-year-old daughter, has her mind set on following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming the next director of behavioral health at ARHS. It is clear to see, that like the rest of us, her children admire their mother’s heart and passion to serve others and have been positively affected by having the opportunity to be nurtured in the same “village” of people their mom did so many years ago.
In this line of work it is not about perfection, it is about progress. We do what we do in behavioral health because we love our patients. It is hard to describe just how blessed I feel to work here and to give back to the very community that has given so much to me.”
Learn more about Behavioral Health services at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System>
By Josh Jarman
How do you define love? To every retailer’s delight, this question seems to always resurface at Valentine’s Day. For better or worse we have become conditioned as a society to celebrate the “heart holiday” with flowers, chocolates and greeting cards. Although these gifts are certainly appreciated, one could argue that dinner reservations and overstuffed teddy bears do not in and of themselves define love.
Mary Finley, the cardiovascular lab manager at Watauga Medical Center defines love differently. At the hospital she and her team work with interventional cardiologists to provide life-saving heart procedures for patients in need of a second chance. After receiving her own share of second chances in life, she defines love as an action, made evident through undeserved and unconditional grace.
On the run
Mary was the youngest of six children in her family’s home in Wilkesboro, NC. It was there that she shared a cramped bedroom with her twin sisters and spent most of her free time outdoors playing by the creek or at church.
“During those days our family made up half of the cast in the Christmas play,” she quipped. “I was that kid who even received the perfect attendance award at Sunday school.”
Her favorite childhood memory took place on Friday nights. After a busy week of school and extracurricular activities, all of the siblings would gather in the kitchen to drink RC Cola and make their own Chef Boyardee Pizzas.
“That was the only night of the week that we were allowed to have soda,” she shared. “I know it sounds insignificant in terms of memories, but my parents worked really hard to provide for all of us. Family nights were really important in our house.”
Mary got caught up in the wrong crowd however when she turned 15 years old. As a freshman in high school she met a boy and her whole world changed. She ran away from home multiple times before deciding to drop out of school, run away for good and to marry her boyfriend. To no avail, her parents pleaded with her to change her mind, but eventually agreed to honor her wishes and to stand by her side at the wedding.
“I thought I knew what I wanted,” she said. “I mean what teenage girl doesn’t know what they want? I found out years later that my parents prayed a thousand prayers for me. I needed every one of them.”
Reality set in for the newlywed couple when the first bill appeared in their mailbox. Unwilling to admit that she was out of her depth, Mary decided to return to the classroom and to work as a maid after school, cleaning houses for rent money.
“I’ll never forget cleaning the house of a young paraplegic lady,” she said. “We quickly formed a friendship and outside of cleaning her house once a week, I volunteered to go over to her home each day during my lunch break to help her get around the house. I think that’s when it hit me that I wanted to go into healthcare. I liked walking into a messy situation and leaving it better than I found it. I like to look at life that way.”
After she graduated from high school an old church friend and mentor recommended that she start her healthcare career by enrolling in the local radiography program. It was there that she discovered her passion for special procedures like heart catheterization and vascular intervention. Determined to leave house cleaning in the dust, the 17-year-old went on to spend every free moment studying her textbooks, working second shift clinicals and third shift x-ray.
All of her hard work paid off at the end of her program when she landed her first job as a radiology tech at Iredell Memorial Hospital in Statesville, NC.
Unfortunately, her marriage suffered and eventually ended during that time. Due to the unstable nature of their relationship, Mary would often have to hide from her ex-husband. “It was a bad time in my life,” she shared. “But, I would not let it define me. I was a very determined young lady.”
Embarrassed and feeling much like the prodigal daughter, Mary called her parents after five distant years to break the news. Surprisingly, within a few hours her parents and all of her siblings pulled up to her new apartment with truckloads of furniture and everything she needed to survive.
“There were no questions asked and no judgements made,” she said. “I don’t know of too many families that could have done that. They never gave up on me.”
Before long she remarried and applied for a position at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC. It was there that the late and beloved Director of Radiological Imaging Services, Wilma Price Redmond, hired Mary as a tech and then quickly promoted her to Special Procedures Supervisor.
“I had so much respect for Wilma,” she said. “Even when she was sick with breast cancer she continued to work, walking around the hospital with her IV pole and her chemo bag hanging by her side. I envied her grit, her kindness and her positive spirit. She taught me how to be leader.”
Mary’s whole world changed again when she had her son, Kyle, in 2000. Eager to spend those early years with her son, she left the hospital and took a more flexible job handling injury claims for an insurance company.
“As a mother, I’ll never regret that decision,” she said. “And that job also allowed me to work in a different side of healthcare. One in which I got to help patients outside of the hospital.”
But soon after her son started school Mary longed to return to the action. To her, nothing was or ever will be more fulfilling than a job in which she literally gets to “scrub in” to help save lives.
During her time away, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System formed and took major strides to improve heart health services in the High Country. Mary was delighted to learn that The Cardiology Center had opened as an outpatient facility on the campus of Watauga Medical Center to provide diagnosis and treatment for heart and vascular disease. A state-of-the-art catheterization lab was also added to the second floor of the hospital to provide much needed interventional cardiology procedures, such as coronary stents and implantable pacemakers. A second cardiovascular lab was added in 2015 to provide patients with better access to vascular surgery.
“We’re in the business of saving lives,” she said. “When it comes to the heart, every second counts. Thanks to these additions, we no longer have to send STEMI cases (heart attack patients) down the mountain for life-saving care. I’m proud to say that we provide everything from cardiac caths and stents to defibrillators and pacemakers to advanced vascular surgery right here in Boone.”
Mary was promoted to cardiovascular lab manager in 2013. As a “working supervisor” she works alongside of her team of technicians and interventional cardiologists to perform more than 1,000 procedures a year at Watauga Medical Center.
Another mentor in Mary’s life has been Dr. Paul Vignola, an interventional cardiologist that she has worked closely with for the last six years. “Dr. Vignola has my total admiration,” she said. “He has been a huge mentor for me not just in the cath lab but also in life. I cannot thank him enough for his support and guidance over the years.”
Shortly after returning to the hospital Mary’s mother, Carolina, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and became a patient at the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone. Since her diagnosis in 2007, Carolina has undergone more than 20 surgical procedures at Watauga Medical Center. Today, after losing her husband, Mary’s dad in 2013, she is still fighting her way through chemotherapy treatments.
Around that time Mary also divorced her second husband. “As you can imagine, that was a very difficult time in my family’s life,” she said. “And it took me awhile to admit that I was struggling with depression. To cope, I tried to channel my energy into my work. And then I would walk across the street to the Cancer Center to try to encourage my mom.”
But, as is often the case with parents, it was her mother that encouraged her. Carolina, an artist by trade, gave a beautiful print to her daughter that reads “She believed she could so she did.” These seven words etched in love beautifully described both mother and daughter. The painting is now prominently displayed in Mary’s office at the hospital as a reminder to never lose faith.
“My mom never lost her faith in me,” she said. “I truly believe that everyone deserves a second chance in life. I’m on chance 10,999 and I’m doing the best I can with it. And it amazes me that God has given me that many chances and he still has not given up on me. My family didn’t, my God hasn’t, and this organization hasn’t. I think everyone that walks in our door at the hospital deserves whatever number chance they are on. To me, that is more than healthcare; it’s love. It is undeserved and unconditional grace.”
By Josh Jarman
Have you ever thought about what goes into hospital operations? Oftentimes we spend so much time thinking about doctors, nurses and patients that we tend to overlook those who work behind the scenes to take care of the hospital building itself. Each pipe, ventilation shaft, walkway and lightbulb must be well-maintained in order to keep the hospital up and running.
No one knows more about hospital operations than Carlton Isaacs. For more than 41 years, Carlton has served as a caretaker for Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC. During that time he has shoveled snow, waxed floors, washed dishes, pulled telephone wire, and even helped out in the operating room. He jokes that he knows the ins and outs of the hospital better than his own home. Recently, roles were reversed however when the 67-year-old caretaker relied on the hospital to provide him with lifesaving care.
Words to live by
Carlton was born and raised on a farm in Watauga County. It was there that his father taught him that ‘you are only as good as your word.’ This truth was lived out on the farm where he and his five siblings would milk cows, herd sheep and pull tobacco to help the family stay afloat.
For fun the kids would eat popcorn and watch Westerns at night. They also enjoyed chasing fireflies in the summer and sledding in the winter.
“Money was tight back then,” he said with a chuckle. “Since we couldn’t afford gloves, my mother would make each of us wear our wool socks like mittens in the snow. When they got wet we set them by the stove to warm, grabbed another pair and then back out the door we went.”
To help provide for the family, Carlton landed his first job in the environmental services department at Watauga Medical Center when he turned 17. His first assignment was to scrub and wax all of the floors in the hospital. Often viewed as a menial task, his supervisor noticed that he performed the job with a great deal of pride.
“Growing up on a farm will teach you not to be afraid of hard work,” he said. “No matter what you do at the hospital, your job is just as important as the next one. It takes a team to make everything work.”
Thanks to his positive attitude he was promoted to work in several other departments including plant operations and information technology. He was also recognized as the hospital’s employee of the year in 1991.
“I was shocked when they called my name at the banquet,” he said. “It just goes to show that if you stay true to your word, good things happen.”
One evening, while working second shift at the hospital, Carlton spied a pretty girl who was there to visit her sick grandfather. Unwilling to let the moment pass him by he summoned all of his courage to say hello. And so it was a friendship formed. Night after night the blushing teenagers would secretly rendezvous in the hospital cafeteria until one day when she informed him that her grandfather’s health had improved and he was getting discharged to return home.
“At that point, I knew I had to quit playing around and ask the girl out,” he laughed. “But, without a car or license I felt like a poorly equipped bachelor. So I asked if it would be alright if I called on her once I got my driver’s license and my own set of wheels. She agreed.”
After a year of saving, Carlton purchased his datemobile, a red 1968 Chevrolet 327 Camaro. As fate would have it the couple went on to have their first of many dates at Hilltop Drive Inn and got married a year later. Today, after 47 years of marriage, Carlton and Mary have two kids, three grandchildren and three great grandbabies.
To love and be loved in return
Recently, because of his history with smoking, his primary care provider Jerica Smith, FNP, and Dr. Kevin Wolfe, a pulmonologist at The Lung Center in Boone, NC, recommended that Carlton participate in the hospital’s lung cancer screening program. This low-dose CT (LDCT) scan is free and available as a preventive service for Medicare patients between 55 – 77 years of age who qualify. Private insurance plans also cover the screening program.
“I was surprised to learn that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” he said. “But, Jerica and Dr. Wolfe explained that with early detection, patients have a better shot at survival. Needless to say, I signed up for the screening.”
Unfortunately, the screening revealed a suspicious spot in his left lung. He was then referred to Dr. Tim Edmisten, a Boone native and general and thoracic (lung and esophagus) surgeon at Watauga Surgical Group. Dr. Edmisten and the surgical team at Watauga Medical Center were able to use an advanced minimally invasive technology called endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) to determine that Carlton‘s cancer was detected by the screening CT scan at an early stage. EBUS combines traditional bronchoscopy (looking into the airway and lungs with a light) with ultrasound imaging to enable the surgeon to visualize and biopsy lymph nodes or masses beyond the traditional access points of bronchoscopy in order to increase the ability to obtain a diagnosis and determine the extent of the cancer. All of this can be done as an outpatient procedure without any incisions or need for lengthy recovery time.
Thankfully, the EBUS and x-rays confirmed that Carlton’s cancer was localized in the left upper lung at an early stage, which would give him a high chance of cure with surgical resection, as opposed to the vast majority of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer at a more advanced stage. Dr. Edmisten went on to explain that less than 20 percent of patients with lung cancer currently survive the disease because it is not detected until a more advanced stage. However, the screening program at Watauga Medical Center enabled Carlton’s cancer to be diagnosed at the earliest stage which would allow an 80 to 90 percent chance for cure with surgical resection. Dr. Edmisten and the team at Watauga Medical Center proceeded to perform a thoracoscopic lobectomy for Carlton which enabled removal of the upper lobe of the lung containing the cancer through a minimally invasive technique involving two keyhole incisions plus a 1 1/2 inch incision utilizing thoracoscopic video technology. This advanced technique, offered to less than 50 percent of lung cancer patients in the United States who have surgically removable tumors, provides the benefit of less pain, lower risk of complications, and more rapid recovery and return to work in comparison to the traditional larger open incision thoracotomy.
As a result, Carlton was able to be discharged from the hospital two days after surgery and is thankfully on a full road to recovery.
“I’ve been around long enough to remember working with Dr. Edmisten’s father (Edmisten Heating and Cooling) to add Freon to the chiller at the hospital,” said Carlton. “Now, I have lived long enough to have his son, Dr. Edmisten, say a prayer over me before surgery. When you have a doctor like that and the good Lord on your side, not much can go wrong.”
Before he was discharged to return home, Carlton was touched by the number of hospital friends who stopped by to check on him.
“I had friends from all points in my career stop by to look in on me,” he said. “When you spend a lifetime taking care of a building, and then that building and the people in it take care of you, well, it’s just pretty special. I love these people like my very own family.”
Nearly two months after his procedure, Carlton, who still wears his 20 years of service pin on his belt buckle, is eager to get back to work on a part-time basis. When asked why he was only coming back part-time, he smiled and said, “So I can spend more time spoiling my grandbabies.
Hi! My name is Susan (Susie) Morgan and I have been a volunteer in the Gift Shop at the Watauga Medical Center since October of 2016.
I retired from Appalachian State University in 2015 after 20 years in various positions, most recently as Director of Academic Testing. I am a big believer of giving back to the community, so after a year of “stagnation,” I began to look around for local volunteer opportunities. A good friend encouraged me to apply at the WMC Gift Shop and it has been a blessing to me. As my daughter says, “it keeps me off the sofa!” In addition to volunteering at WMC, I serve on the Board of the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge and on the “Bread of Life” committee at St Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, which provides home cooked meals to Hospitality House, the local homeless shelter.
I really enjoy my two afternoons a week at the WMC gift shop. The hospital personnel are so friendly and welcoming. Plus, it is fun to run into friends who also volunteer in other departments around the hospital. I look forward to coming “to work” here at Watauga Medical Center and encourage other “retirees” to join me!
Learn more about volunteering with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System >
By Josh Jarman
None of us like to think about cancer. Much like other banned household words, we tend to believe that if we just ignore it long enough, if we don’t talk about it and if we pretend that it isn’t there, it will somehow leave us well enough alone. Of course, we all know that it doesn’t work that way, but sometimes avoiding the truth just seems easier than looking in the mirror.
After surviving breast cancer, Blowing Rock resident Kimberley Burns, was diagnosed a few years later with terminal brain, thoracic, spine and abdominal cancer. On February 26, 2016, she was told that she only had three to six months left to live. The word cancer, which she had bravely defeated only a few years before, was back with a vengeance and it would not be ignored. Anger and depression loomed heavily over the Burns household until one day she woke up, parted ways with her self-pity and looked in the mirror.
“After I’m gone,” said the spry 48-year-old, “I want people to remember from my story that there is always a reason to hope, and that if you have faith, everything gets taken care of with time.”
New Kid on the Block
Siblings (left to right): Jonathan Griffin, Micheal Griffin, Kimberley Burns pictured at viaduct in 1983
Kimberley’s first memory was of a police officer instructing her to say goodbye to her newborn sister. As a three-year-old, Kimberley kissed her sister’s forehead and watched in terror as the man-in-the-uniform took her lifeless body out of their family home in Miami, Florida. This was the second sister she had lost to cystic fibrosis.
“I wish my first memory were of Christmas morning instead,” she quipped. “For years, my brothers and I worried that the police might show up again one day to take us away.”
To help with the grieving process, her mother Sharon, a mid-wife; and her father Wayne, a civil engineer contracted with the Army Corps of Engineers; worked very hard to keep the family together. Due to the nature of her father’s job, the family moved every six to 18 months causing Kimberley and her brothers Jonathan and Micheal to attended 14 different schools. During that time, she found it difficult to always be the new kid, fresh meat for the bullies.
“In his wisdom, my dad took me to witness a regiment of Vietnam veterans returning home in 1975,” she said. “I’ll never forget those weary faced men and the angry mob that spat and cursed their return. I remember looking up and asking my dad why they hated these men so much. He put his arm around me and said; because they did a job that these people disagree with. I always had a great respect for the armed services after that experience. Just like my dad, they had orders, they had a thankless job to do and they did it to protect and to serve.”
After that, Kimberley decided to embrace both politics and being the new kid. She reasoned that if no one knew who she was, she had as good a shot as anyone else to run for the student government association (SGA).
“I always ran for President or Vice President,” she said. “My mom, in hopes of improving my chances, suggested that I run for Secretary or Treasurer instead. But I said no, I wanted a position at the top and you know what? I won it twice.”
Kimberley was 12-years-old when the family moved to Morganton, North Carolina. Her father took a job as an engineer for the Linn Cove Viaduct, a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs along the side of Grandfather Mountain.
“I would walk to dad’s office after school, crawl under his desk and chew Dentyne,” she said with a laugh. “I was always amazed at how he could look at a bunch of calculations and draw a roadway from it. Occasionally, he would take me in his baby blue Cadillac convertible up the mountain to observe the work first hand. I loved that time with dad.”
After settling into their new home, Kimberley’s parents called a family meeting to discuss whether they should become specialized foster parents for people with development disabilities.
“I think my mom felt that this was something that she could do to remember and honor her lost daughters, my sisters,” she said. “We all had to go through crisis management training in order to be able to safely respond to tantrums and the various behavioral issues that were to come. Two kids lived with us for six years, others came and left, but we loved them all like family. I never held it against my friends who did not understand it, or want to come over to play. Our house was different and I knew it, but I was proud of my parents and I was grateful for the compassion they instilled in me.”
After graduating high school Kimberley went on to study criminal justice in college. Her dream was to become a lawyer, but everything changed after she got pregnant and became a single mother at 18.
“It was a very sad and confusing time for me and my new baby girl, Kandice,” she said. “Everyone in town looked down on me; it was a whole new kind of shame and bullying. To get away from it all, my family decided to move back to Florida, where I married and had my son, Patrick.”
Unfortunately, the marriage was abusive in nature and after attempting to make it work for many years; she found the strength to say enough is enough. Divorced and with two small children at home, she worked around the clock as a bank sanitation worker, a real estate agent, a police officer, a paralegal, and as a special education teacher to provide for her family. Years later, she landed her dream job back in North Carolina as a general education development (GED) program instructor.
“Looking back, I am grateful for my early childhood bouts with change, bullying and uncomfortable situations. While instructing the GED program, I met and worked with hundreds of kids and misplaced adults who all had tough starts in life and I did my best to encourage them. I like to live my life by a simple saying that I came up with a few years ago, ‘Be as forgiving as you intend on being gracious,’” she said. “I want to live a gracious life.”
For Better, For Worse
Kimberley and Scott Burns pictured at a family reunion in 2011.
In 2008, while volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity event, Kimberley met Scott. The couple dated for a year before deciding to get married. “Scott and I were both okay with going to the court house, I mean I was 42 at the time, but my now adult son and daughter both insisted that we celebrate the occasion the right way.”
The nontraditional wedding was a huge success. Kandice served as her mother’s maid of honor and Patrick, Scott’s best man. Afterward, the wedding guests enjoyed an elegant dinner and dance reception at the Old American Legion Building in Blowing Rock.
“We had menus, real china and a six-piece band,” she said. “It was a wonderful day shared with my husband, my kids, my parents, my brothers and one hundred of our closest friends.”
Unfortunately, their marital bliss would be interrupted two short months later by a disturbing dream in which Kimberley recalls fighting a bear. “I woke up gripping my left breast so hard that it hurt and for some reason I felt I needed to do a self-breast exam,” she said. “I discovered a lump on my breast and shared the news with my family. Everyone agreed that I needed a mammogram and a surgical consult, but we, like so many families, did not have insurance to pay for it. I almost panicked, but we were able to find financial assistance through the Appalachian Health Department and the Susan G. Komen Foundation.”
After her mammogram at the Wilma Redmond Breast Center in Boone came back suspicious, Kimberley was referred to Dr. Paul Dagher at Watauga Surgical Group for biopsies on her left and right breast. Then the Tumor Board, which meets weekly at Watauga Medical Center to review cancer cases, recommended that she have a skin sparing mastectomy on her left breast and a prophylactic nipple sparing mastectomy on her right breast, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatment.
“Dr. Dagher was fantastic,” she said. “He clearly explained everything and he prayed with me before I went in for the procedure. During that time, a lot of people suggested that I go to a larger hospital off the mountain, but I felt strongly about being close to home, close to my doctors, and close to the excellent healthcare services right here in Boone.”
The bilateral mastectomy was completed by Dr. Dagher at Watauga Medical Center on September 19, 2012. She was cleared to return home three days later. “I have been in and out of hospitals many times in my life and I can honestly say my experience at Watauga Medical Center was one of the better ones. From the OR staff to the nurse that gave me a sponge bath, everyone was very caring and respectful.”
From there Kimberley was referred to the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone, for her chemotherapy and radiation treatment. As a first time visitor to the Cancer Center, she was greeted by Paul Young, Nurse Navigator; Angie Del Nero, Social Worker; Melanie Childers, Pastoral Care; her Medical Oncologist, Dr. Anna Sobol; and her Radiation Oncologist, Dr. Yvonne Mack.
“Everyone knew me by name,” she said. “Rather than feeling alone, I felt like I had an entire team of advocates working on my behalf to provide me with the best clinical, emotional and spiritual care possible.”
To Love and to Cherish
Kimberley and Scott Burns on their wedding day
“I had a really hard time looking in the mirror,” she said. “As a newlywed, even after my reconstruction surgery, the change was so dramatic that I decided to secretly hold off on submitting our marriage license. I worried because I was no longer the same bride that Scott married. I was now bald and had lost my breasts. When he finally found out, he simply smiled, told me that he loves me for me and that none of that matters.”
The battle tested couple went on to enjoy three more years of marriage before the cancer returned. Kimberley remembers getting ready to go teach a belly dancing class when she developed a painful migraine and started vomiting. Before long it was revealed that her breast cancer had metastasized and spread throughout her body.
On February 26, 2016, after 15 more courses of radiation followed by chemotherapy, Dr. Sobol broke the news to the Burns family that Kimberley’s cancer was progressing. Depending on her ability to tolerate the side effects of treatment and her response to chemotherapy, she could have as few as three to six months left to live. The intrusive disease spread quietly, first to her spine and then on to her brain and abdomen.
Despite her prognosis, Kimberley decided to fight back by participating in what proved to be an unsuccessful and life-threatening clinical trial; followed by what Dr. Sobol described as life prolonging chemotherapy.
“The chemo has worked better than any of us expected,” she said. “To celebrate, we had a six month and one day life party. Then we had a one year party and a two year party and now I’m starting to plan my three year party. I’m still considered a terminal cancer patient, who will have to have weekly chemotherapy treatments for the rest of my life, but I’m still here and I’m so grateful for each and every day.”
Till Death do us Part
“I’m not angry anymore,” she shared thoughtfully. “For about three weeks, I let myself grieve, but then I woke up one morning, sat straight up in bed and heard an inner voice like thunder tell me to ‘Stop with the self-pity.’”
From that day forward Kimberley shared that she began to see life more clearly. “My faith is what puts my feet on the floor in the morning. I can’t think of anything I’m not grateful for and yes, that includes the cancer. It’s weird sometimes how we receive blessings.”
Kimberley embraced her role as a regular at the Cancer Center. She would often arrive a few minutes before her treatment to hand out flowers to the nurses and the other patients. She has also participated in several survivorship programs including fly fishing trips, the radiance program, and the expressive arts open studio.
Click here to learn more about the Survivorship classes offered at the Cancer Center.
As a participant in the expressive arts open studio she recently painted an inspiring floral canvas print and donated it to the Cancer Center. “I decided to paint bright yellow daffodils with a lavender background; lavender represents all cancers. I had to hold the paint brush with both hands, due to the neuropathy that has developed as a side effect from my chemotherapy. They decided to hang the painting up in the infusion room so people receiving their chemotherapy treatments will see it. For my friends that have passed away from cancer, and for the ones that are still living and fighting, I wanted to provide something that would be cheerful and would give them hope.”
At home Kimberley and her family spent as much time together as possible. “I talk to my mom on the phone all the time and my dad, who is now hard of hearing, sends me a sweet text message every day. I’ve started going on road trips with my brother Jonathan, who is now a big truck driver, and my brother Micheal visits the house all the time. My kids are so considerate and I love them with all of my heart. And Scott, well, I can’t say enough about him, he never leaves my side.”
Despite her prognosis, Kimberley lived longer than the doctors expected.
Kimberley shared that she would be ready to leave this life in peace and go on to the next one. As for her body, she had already made arrangements for it to be donated to the University of North Carolina for medical research. “Since I have an incurable cancer, maybe some brilliant student can figure out how to make my cancer curable to help others.”
Kimberley Griffin Burns will always be remembered as a loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother and friend. To those who knew her, she is the personification of hope, made evident through her joyful spirit and unwavering faith. For the rest of us, her story provides a prayer soaked, grace-filled blueprint for how to live, love and die well.
Barbara Robinson has been volunteering at WMC since 2006. She currently volunteers in radiation oncology and is a true blessing to anyone she meets. Below in her own words, Barbara shares why she decided to become a volunteer.
I attended Indiana Central College studying elementary education which I utilized as a substitute teacher for two years when our son started school. However, I soon realized that teaching was not my calling as I had always loved the medical field. So I began my seven years at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Fla, obtaining my accredited records tech certification and served in the role of supervisor of medical/legal information release. I then relocated to Radiology Consultants and worked for the next seven years as supervisor of Medicare reimbursement.
When my husband took early retirement, I followed and we began splitting our time between Florida and North Carolina. I knew I wanted to give something back to our new community and keeping my contact in medical records, I started volunteering at Watauga Medical Center. I also volunteer at ASU ushering at the summer arts series, at Watauga Humane Society as a greeter and with SNIPS (spay and neuter in a positive solution). I just enjoy helping people and animals find their way!