It has been said that timing is everything. Fortunately for Betty Redman, she has been in the right place at the right time, not just once, but at least twice – at least where her heart health is concerned.
Despite a family history of heart problems, Redman had been healthy most of her adult life. “My father died at age 52 with a heart attack, and my mother, although she lived to be 84, was paralyzed from a stroke at the age of 62. She received good therapy, and was able to retain her mobility to a point.”
However, things began to change for Redman in the last decade when she was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation; she responded well to medication, but had occasional mini-strokes.
Still, she said, it wasn’t too serious — until last year.
Uncovering hidden heart conditions
While in physical therapy at The Rehabilitation Center of Cannon Memorial Hospital (CMH) due to a shoulder injury, an observant and compassionate therapist, Day Watson, was concerned when Redman had pain in her left arm and back following her treatment. Her vital signs were erratic, which was alarming to Watson.
“Day told me I needed to call my cardiologist right away. By the time I got home, after we had stopped for lunch, Day had already called Dr. Helak, who was my cardiologist in Boone at the time,” said Redman. “I went in and he began running tests. We discovered that I had more of a problem than I thought.”
Left to right: Fred France, Betty Redman, and Stephanie Platt
Redman had major blockages, which required extensive interventions, so she was transferred to Asheville for stents. That was May 10, 2019. After that, she was referred back to CMH, where she began cardiac rehab and met Stephanie Platt.
A registered nurse with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System since 2012, Platt has a passion for caring for cardiac patients. And it was this passion along with her instinct that led to Redman’s next intervention.
After several sessions of her recommended therapy, Redman was “working away” on one of the machines one day when Platt told her and her husband, Fred France, that Redman’s heart was pausing.
“I was watching the telemetry monitor and began noticing pauses,” Platt related. “They were less than two seconds, initially, but the fact that she was having them at all concerned me.” At the same time, Redman recalled with a chuckle, “I didn’t know what my heart was doing – I was not feeling any of it. I was on the machines going 90 miles an hour.”
At that point, Platt contacted Redman’s cardiologist in Asheville, who asked about her symptoms: was she dizzy or light headed? “No, but she is very fatigued, you can see it when she walks in the door,” Platt replied.
Platt was frustrated that her observation wasn’t taken seriously.
A nurse’s intuition, observation, and tenacity
“That was difficult,” she said. “But, we continued to monitor her. I sat down with Betty and Fred the next session and told them that she was still having some pauses.”
Upon Platt’s recommendation, Redman followed up with Dr. David Kimmel, her primary physician locally, who agreed that she needed to wear a heart monitor.
“Once we touched base with Dr. Kimmel, I felt better,” Platt said. “He understood. We were on the same team, caring for this patient together and figuring out what was going on.”
Redman received the heart monitor, wore it for two weeks as suggested and mailed it back in. “I still thought I was fine – and kept going to rehab.”
But, she was still having pauses, Platt recalled. “And, I continued to send strips of the pauses to her cardiologist in Asheville. I was certain that something was wrong with her, but was told it was okay; they did not express concern.”
At this point Platt was adamant. “You have to listen to what you know, and trust what you know, and continue to fight for your patients.”
Two and a half weeks after she had returned her monitor, Redman said, she and her husband were coming home from grocery shopping when her cell phone rang.
“It was my local cardiologist, Dr. Helak. He said, ‘you’ve got to go to the hospital in Boone right now.’ That was a shock to me. I told him I couldn’t do that, that we had $300 worth of groceries in the car and I had to go home to put them up.”
The two agreed that she would go to the hospital the next morning, a Saturday, to have a pacemaker procedure performed by Dr. Andrew Hordes. “I went to the hospital at 8 a.m., and five minutes later, I was in a hospital gown with a heart monitor on,” she said. “I needed a pacemaker, they told me, but I had to be weaned off of my blood thinners, first. So, they monitored me until it was safe, and on Monday afternoon, I got my pacemaker. I came home on Tuesday afternoon and went back to cardiac rehab as soon as they cleared me. And now I’m doing fine and going to physical therapy two days a week.”
Redman and France, who have been permanent High Country residents since 2000, can’t say enough about the compassionate care they have experienced through this situation.
“I’m a great believer in therapy — and the fine folks in this local hospital system are the best,” she said.
“I’m doing well now and will always be grateful for the care that I have received at Cannon Hospital, and most recently, by Stephanie, Beth Ann Scott (Exercise Physiologist) and Velma Greene (Respiratory Therapist) who monitored me very carefully to make sure I was ok,” she said. “I credit Stephanie for saving my life, and Drs. Kimmel and Helak, for listening to Stephanie’s concerns. Those people are very good. I can’t say enough for them.”
For Platt, the situation was just as pleasant. “Betty and Fred are one of the sweetest couples I’ve ever met. They are so supportive of each other. When we discovered that she was having these (new) problems, we did our best to encourage her. We reassured her that she was in the right place and that we would take care of her.”
Platt said she is “truly blessed” to be working in a position that affords her the opportunity to build a strong rapport with her patients and to advocate for them.
“I consider my patients as family, even after they complete our program,” she said. “It’s people like Betty and Fred who make it all worthwhile. I am thankful that they allowed me to care for Betty during her cardiac rehab.”
In February 2017, Platt was presented with the opportunity to become the Cardiopulmonary Rehab Nurse at Cannon. “I truly feel that God knew where I needed to be and led me to this position,” Platt continued. “I am thankful and blessed to be the nurse for this program and to be able to care for each patient that comes through the program.”
Platt said, she never thinks about it as going above and beyond. “I’ve been given the tools and ability to help someone and that’s just what I do.” But, she’s also quick to say, it’s not just one single person who deserves the credit for these great outcomes. “It’s everybody working together and we do work very well together. I am thankful for the personal care that our staff gives to our patients.”
Left to right: Stephanie Platt, Betty, and Beth Ann Scott on Betty’s “graduation” day.
Beth Ann Scott, Exercise Physiologist and site supervisor for the program at Cannon Memorial Hospital, had this to say: “We are fortunate to have staff at both of our rehab programs who are invested in working in cardiopulmonary rehab. We have well-educated and professionally qualified individuals who all have their heart in truly caring for our patients. We all keep the best interest of our patients as top priority.”
Patients may be in cardiac rehab at least three months and staff get to know them really well. “Our patients become part of our rehab family,” Scott added.
Redman “graduated” from cardiac rehab in January, 2020, and she is doing well. She will continue to follow up with her providers to ensure she stays active for many years to come.
More About Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation
The Appalachian Regional Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation Program is a physician-referred medically supervised exercise program. Each patient is provided with multidisciplinary care from several healthcare professionals which include a medical doctor, exercise physiologist, registered nurse, respiratory therapist, behavioral health specialist and clinical dietician.
Cardiac Rehabilitation is designed to help restore cardiac patients to an optimal physical, vocational, recreational and emotional status with the ultimate goal of preventing further disease progression. Patients are strongly encouraged to make various lifestyle changes for the purpose of reducing coronary risk and improving quality of life.
Pulmonary Rehabilitation is designed to improve lung function, reduce symptom severity, and improve quality of life. It plays an important role in helping patients with chronic respiratory disease who remain symptomatic or continue to have decreased function despite standard medical treatment.
What to Expect At Cardiac Rehab
A “typical” patient is referred to Cardiac and Pulmonary Rehabilitation usually by his or her primary care provider, cardiologist, pulmonologist or surgeon after experiencing heart or lung- related issues.
Patients complete an initial orientation appointment with a registered nurse to discuss and review their medical history, medications and goals for the program. The patient will also have a blood pressure assessment and EKG performed at this interview. Next, a ‘new start appointment,’ is scheduled for the patient to work one-on-one with an exercise physiologist to begin their program.
The program consists of 36 sessions, lasting about three months and including a focus on exercise, education, nutrition and mental wellness, while being medically supervised by the clinical staff.
Care plans are customized for each patient, based on their health history, current health status and the event/diagnosis that resulted in the need for cardiac or pulmonary rehab. Rehab staff also work with patients to develop an exercise plan to use once they have completed rehab.
“We develop strong rapport with each one of them, and at times, with their family members, as well,” Platt continued. “When they graduate, they are encouraged to reach out to us if they ever need anything. We have numerous graduates who come back to visit and keep us updated on how they are doing.”
Donna and daughters Katie and Jenny [left to right]
Nearly a year ago, Donna Sluder got some exciting news. She was going to be a grandmother. Her youngest daughter was visiting from California, so the family decided to have a baby shower even though it was early in the pregnancy. It snowed that day, and Sluder remembers thinking that despite the snow, the baby shower was wonderful.
“I couldn’t believe how blessed I was to have so many amazing people in my life already, with a new one on the way,” she recounts.
Life was good. And then a few months later, that changed.
A life-changing diagnosis
“It all started with a suspicious red spot on my breast. I went to the doctor believing that it couldn’t be anything serious, and that I was just being careful. I was wrong. I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. I ended up going straight from the doctor to the surgeon to get a biopsy, then to get a mammogram.
When they tell you that you have cancer, it’s like you switch to autopilot mode. A fog settles over you, and you just go through the motions. You do what the doctors tell you to do, but for me it didn’t really click until they told me that I needed to have chemotherapy,” she said.
Sluder, whose three children lost their father when they were young, did not want them to go through the trauma and heartbreak of losing another parent.
“I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to them. I wasn’t ready to believe that I wouldn’t be there to see my grandchild grow up. I wasn’t ready to lose myself to all the harsh treatments that cancer required.”
Anticipating the side effects of chemotherapy
As if cancer itself isn’t enough of a trial to endure, one of the cruelest side effects of chemotherapy is hair loss.
Chemotherapy drugs used to treat solid tumor cancer work by targeting all of the body’s rapidly dividing cells. Since hair is the second fastest dividing cell in the body, hair-loss is an inevitable side effect of chemotherapy.
This technology allows some chemotherapy patients to keep most or all of their hair, and Dr. Sobol’s news gave her a measure of hope.
Administered through an inner and outer scalp cap during each chemotherapy treatment, Paxman technology lowers the temperature of the scalp by a few degrees before, during, and after treatment. As a result, the three-stage cooling process reduces the blood flow to the hair follicles, minimizing hair loss.
Holding on to her confidence, and her privacy
Donna and grandson Wyatt
“I wanted to feel like I could hold onto some part of me through all of this,” she said.
Electing to try the new technology, Sluder arrived 30 minutes early to each of her chemotherapy treatments to allow time for the cap to be applied and the cooling to take effect. She also spent an extra hour and a half wearing the cap at the end of the treatment. Though she admits there was some discomfort in the first 15 minutes while adjusting to the cold and the tightness of the silicon cap, her body adapted.
The results were what she had hoped for. She was able to keep 75% of her hair throughout chemotherapy. And she was able to keep her privacy.
“I retained the confidence to walk into a room and not have strangers know something so personal and intimate about myself. If someone knows I have had chemo, it’s because I have shared that with them. They don’t automatically know because I don’t have hair,” she said. “Countless people have told me that if they didn’t know I was going through chemo, they never would have guessed it.
They say I look the same now as I did before hand, and I’m very thankful for that. Of course, I can see some differences, but I feel like I can still be seen for me, and not for my cancer.”
The next chapter
A year later, Sluder is moving forward and feeling hopeful as she completes her radiation treatments. She says she’s thankful for the doctors and nurses at the Cancer Center for their support and care, and for telling her about the PAXMAN scalp cooling technology. She is also grateful to her kids and her boyfriend for supporting and loving her through the whole ordeal and giving her something to fight for every day.
“And the biggest thanks of all goes to Jesus for giving me peace and all the other things that I’m so thankful for,” she said.
She has another amazing person in her life now, her new grandson Wyatt. And she is looking forward to watching him grow up.
When considering a new treatment, patients should evaluate the risks and benefits with their doctor. PAXMAN Scalp Cooling is not recommended for some patients.
For questions or to learn more about the PAXMAN Scalp Cooling treatments, call Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center at (828) 262-4332 or visit paxmanusa.com.
Are you prepared to die today? Perhaps no question in life is more sobering than the one that causes us to consider our own mortality. Most of us, if given the opportunity, will avoid death and dying conversations like the plague – pun intended. But if faced head on, tough questions can also challenge us to make the most out of every opportunity.
Tony Weaver, an adventure loving Ashe County resident, knows firsthand the danger of taking life for granted. After experiencing chest pains, he made an appointment at The Cardiology Center in Boone, NC, part of Watauga Medical Center (WMC). It was there, during his appointment, that he went into cardiac arrest and his heart stopped beating for nearly five minutes. When it counted most, his medical team responded with what Tony can only describe as “divine intervention” to save his life.
Tony got his first motorcycle when he turned six years old. Much to his mother’s chagrin, his father proudly encouraged his son to race his older brother, Billy, up and down the country road in front of their home. And so it was a thunderous transition from boyhood to manhood– an unspoken acknowledgement from father to son that the young buck has what it takes.
Tony idolized his father, Reggie, a highly decorated World War II veteran with a purple heart. Together they would hunt, work on their bikes in the garage, and go to church with his grandmother on Sunday.
“Early on I was a wild man on that bike,” he said. “I used to outrun the highway patrol. I guess I was just trying to prove my place in the world. It took me awhile to realize that dad was tough not on account of his war stories, but because he knew what he stood for in life. He used to say, ‘You never know what’s going to happen and it’s a good thing you don’t.’ I guess his point was that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow, so why worry about it. Instead, he was a lot more interested in making sure we made the most out of today.”
Tony went on to have a successful career in plant operations. After he completed his degree in applied engineering, he worked for 38 years as a supervisor in various automobile and electronic factories. During that time, he hired, trained and mentored hundreds of employees and today he still manages a team of 30.
“I have two rules when it comes to leading people,” he shared. “Be fair and be honest. People may not always like you as a supervisor, but they will still respect you if you are fair and honest with them.”
Perhaps his best hire took place in 1997. On that day, he hired his future wife, Brenda Weaver. “I tried to stay objective during the interview, but truth be told, I was pretty distracted by her good looks and personality. Well, as fate would have it, we eventually determined that we would be a better suited as husband and wife than as supervisor and employee. So she quit and I married her. That was the best business decision I’ve ever made.”
The Heart of the Matter
Tony was concerned earlier this year when several employees around the plant told him that his face was pale. During that time, he also remembers that he felt unusually tired and that his heart rate had slowed down to 44 beats a minute. A healthy heart ranges between 60 – 100 beats per minute.
The very next day, on January 24, 2019, he scheduled an appointment at The Cardiology Center. It was there that Dr. George Hanna, a board certified cardiologist, ran a diagnostic test known as an electrocardiogram (EKG). The results confirmed what Dr. Hanna had suspected. He had an abnormally slow heart rate that would require a pacemaker.
Tony then unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest and collapsed in the office. Eager to restart his heart, Dr. Hanna called for help and his team responded without missing a beat.
Kim Denny, RN, a pacemaker device nurse at The Cardiology Center literally jumped on top of the exam room table to start performing CPR. Her colleague Carly Blevins then charged the defibrillator and applied the single shock needed to save his life.
“Every three months we are required to complete an in-service CPR training class at the hospital,” said Denny. “In that moment, all of my training came back to me. I also cannot say enough about Carly, as she charged the defibrillator I noticed her praying for Mr. Weaver. They just so happen to be friends outside of the hospital.”
Plumbing and Electrical
Now that their patient was revived and stable, the cardiology team needed to determine if Tony’s low cardiac output was a result of a plumbing issue (coronary blockage) or an electrical issue (communication malfunction) within the heart or a combination of the two.
To find out, Tony was then transported to Watauga Medical Center for an emergency cardiac catheterization. The diagnostic procedure was performed by WMC’s new Interventional Cardiologist, Dr. Steve Filby. Fortunately, the test revealed no blockage and thus ruled out a plumbing issue. Had there been a coronary blockage, Dr. Filby could have then performed a minimally invasive artery widening procedure known as an angioplasty to improve blood flow to the heart.
Thanks to the catheterization it was then determined that Tony’s heart problem was in fact caused by an electrical issue. For Tony, that meant that the top part of his heart and the bottom part of his heart were no longer communicating with each other. To correct this disorder Dr. Andrew Hordes, a cardiologist and device specialist at WMC, inserted a two wire pacemaker that same day. The pacemaker puts one wire in the top part of the heart (atrium) and another wire in the bottom part of the heart (ventricle) and then uses the signals from the atrium to tell the pacemaker when to pace or reestablish the timing between both parts of the heart. Essentially, the pacemaker will now ensure that both his heart rate and heart rhythm stay in normal healthy ranges.
“Mr. Weaver was fortunate enough to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people,” said Dr. Hordes. “After the team resuscitated him, and it was determined that he had no coronary blockage, we were able to put in a pacemaker. By putting in a pacemaker, we not only fixed the electrical problem with his heart, but we prolonged his life.”
Tony was cleared to return home two days later. When asked about his experience he said, “It is clear to see that God had no intention of taking me that day. He put all the right people, with all the right training in my path to save my life.”
Kim Denny, the quick thinking nurse that performed CPR in the office now serves as one of Tony’s pacemaker device nurses. Denny and her fellow device nurse, Leslie Wilson, RN, remotely monitor thousands of pacemakers every day from The Cardiology Center.
“On the Saturday he went back to work, I remember we were curious to see if all of the equipment he works with at the factory would interfere with his pacemaker,” said Denny. “So, I asked him to send me a transmission after he walked through the entire plant just to make sure it was safe and it was. I think he takes comfort in the fact that we are always monitoring and ready to help if he needs us.”
Pacemakers have come a long way over the years. Like Tony, the majority of patients do require the dual chamber two-wire system. Fortunately, this state-of-the-art pacemaker is small, MRI safe and Bluetooth compatible, which allows for remote monitoring and as needed heart rhythm adjustments. Watauga Medical Center also recently started offering what is referred to as the world’s smallest pacemaker, a wireless system, for patients who qualify.
Wild at Heart
Outside of his pacemaker, Tony admits that nothing makes his heart beat with more vigor than riding his motorcycle. “I have been riding motorcycles for 52 years now,” he said with a grin. “And thanks to God and the medical team at Watauga Medical Center, I’ll keep riding till the day I die, which is hopefully a long time from now.”
At work, he has become an outspoken ambassador for intentional living. “I try to remind my team that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow,” he said. “I feel a responsibility to always point people toward the things that matter in life. I believe that is why I am still here. And I’m going to live the rest of my life by the scripture verse Joshua 24:15, ‘…As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’”
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 light bulb 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.
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.
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.
Experience teaches us that few things in life go according to plan. As a result, we are encouraged by our elders to hope for the best and to prepare for the worst. After successfully navigating through an early-life tragedy, Joe Thompson has learned to embrace change with humility and to write his plans in pencil.
Thompson grew up on a small farm in Pittsboro, NC. As an only child, he became very close with his mother, who worked long hours at the community label mill, and his father who managed the family farm.
“I’ll never forget the day when dad brought home that bright red 1952 Farmall tractor,” said Thompson with a grin. “I was just a child at the time, but he taught me how to plow, plant and harvest sweet corn, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, butter beans and so much more. Little did I realize it at the time, but dad was preparing me for life after his death.”
Thompson was 11-years-old when his father lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. “At that point, mom and I realized that we had a choice to make… we could either get hung up on broken plans or write new ones in pencil.”
His mother continued to work long hours at the label mill and Thompson, with the help of his uncles, agreed to take on the responsibility of the farm.
Still small in stature he can remember wiping away tears as he climbed up into his father’s tractor seat for the first time after his death. “I did all of the things dad taught me to do and as a family mom and I grew closer, we persevered together.”
It had always been a dream in the Thompson household that Joe would be the first one to graduate from a four-year university. Although Thompson excelled in the classroom, he was often distracted by his work on the farm and a fun-loving girl who caught his eye.
“I met Martha in the first grade and I can still picture her running around in those pretty cotton dresses,” he said. “It took me until prom to actually ask her out on a date, but we have been together ever since.”
To the delight of his mother after high school Thompson was accepted into the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I was excited to go to college, but money was tight and I still needed to be able to help out on the farm. I decided to live at home and commute to school. This was a bit embarrassing, but since Batman’s Stately Wayne Manor was pretty popular at the time, I used to tell people when they asked which dorm I was living in that I was staying at Stately Thompson Manor. No one ever questioned my answer or found out that I was living at home.”
Thompson later married Martha and together they had a son, Adam. The family moved to Wilkesboro, NC, where Thompson worked for the Department of Transportation for 38 years and Martha as a nurse for 40 years.
During that time, Thompson became a very involved father and he embraced his role as an Assistant Scout Master in Adam’s Boy Scout Troop. “I guess I was personally drawn to the Boy Scouts because of their motto, to Be Prepared. My dad taught me as much as he could before he died and I wanted to pass those same preparedness traits on to my son.”
A few years ago, Thompson decided to have a total knee replacement procedure with orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Steven Anderson. “I hurt my left knee while playing football back in high school,” he said. “At the time I had surgery, but it left me with limited lateral stability. Once I finally decided to address the problem for good in 2015, I felt very fortunate to find Dr. Anderson, who was working in Wilkesboro at the time. Unlike the orthopedic surgery center I went to in Charlotte, NC, Dr. Anderson treated me with respect and like a real person. I was not another number to him.”
So pleased was Thompson with the outcome of his knee surgery that he decided to return to Dr. Anderson last year when he started experiencing pain in both of his hips, even though Dr. Anderson is now at AppOrtho in Boone. “I was having mobility issues in terms of getting in-and-out of the car, using the tractor, and even just trying to go on walks with Martha.”
“I was only too willing to travel up the mountain to see my preferred surgeon,” said Thompson. “After a quick examination, Dr. Anderson told me that I would benefit from and be an ideal candidate for anterior hip replacement surgery. He went on to say that at 70-years-old, I could either try to live with the pain a little while longer, or I could fix it now and enjoy a better quality of life.”
Thompson went home and researched anterior hip replacement surgery. He watched countless surgery videos and learned after completing his own research that this front-of-the-hip approach to surgery is less invasive than the traditional hip replacement. He also learned that patients, who choose an anterior hip replacement, typically experience a quicker recovery time.
After completing his due diligence, Thompson agreed to have his right hip replaced by Dr. Anderson on January 23, 2018, at Watauga Medical Center. The procedure was completed without complication and Thompson was discharged the following day. Eight weeks later, after noticing a significant improvement in his right hip, Dr. Anderson completed the same procedure on his left hip.
“Sometimes I have to remind myself that I even had hip replacement surgery,” he quipped. “I’m able to do the activities I want to do again.”
One of those activities includes riding his father’s 1952 Farmall tractor. After his mother passed away in 2008, Thompson inherited his parent’s farm and restored his father’s cherished tractor. Every two weeks, he returns home to care for the farm, while Martha tends to the flower beds around the house.
“I guess you could say I’m pretty sentimental,” said Thompson. “Although my plans have changed a few times throughout the years, I’m grateful for my family, for the opportunities they provided for me, and for the many memories we share.”
Thanks to AppOrtho, patients are choosing to drive up the mountain for their orthopedic care. With locations in Jefferson, NC, and Boone, NC, patients can schedule same-day appointments Monday through Friday, and on Saturday in Boone. Referral is not required.