Ray's Letter


FYI only. Just a human interest story, and candles are a part of it. Enclosed is most of what I recently emailed to a few doctors at the hospital I'm donating a kidney at. Following kidney donation and a short recovery- the plan is to donate my right lobe liver at UPMC (Pittsburgh). Now that's a huge operation. I pulled out the medical parts of my email, here is the bones of what I wrote, almost entirely about two amazing women.

As I said- if Sue was still here- she'd be using your oils exclusively for her candles. A response is not needed or requested to this, just a good read for you, and maybe your family/staff. Have a positive week.

"Donor rationale- Loss certainly sharpens perspective on that which is important, and the ultimately inconsequential falls away. I echo the core of Lou Gehrig’s (ALS) 1939 speech, where he proclaimed that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth”. I repeat this sentiment daily, as I have been loved by two strong, dynamic and fabulous women- in one lifetime. Imagine that. They were different- but each was the very best. This reality has made me a better man, one who is appreciative for everything I have seen and felt. I am so grateful for the many stretches of joy, even when intermingled with deep loss- which leads to a strong pull to give back where I can, and how I can. The how just happens to be organ donations right now. I know that the eventual kidney and right lobe liver recipients are actually someones de facto/allegorical Roberta, and/or someones de facto/allegorical Sue. Two individuals (male or female) who are loved by someone will receive healthy organs, and this reality is the core of my desire to successfully complete both of these donations.

Roberta- Dedicated High school art teacher, artist, weaver. Smart, strong, kind, with a smile that lit up a room. Roberta's dad was a humble baker in Brooklyn, NY, and often brought unsold bread back home, to disperse to his neighbors in need. He passed this lesson on to Roberta- do what you can for others in need, that's ultimately why we're placed here. Roberta was one of the original founders of her school's Dispute Mediation program- a student led conflict resolution program. As the arbitration panel was wholly student based, it had optimal student buy in; and became an integral, ongoing aspect of the school's resources to bridge student cultural and education differences/conflicts. Roberta also loved language- and she could converse in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

Roberta could not conceive, and she and I were (1992) at the very tail end of a long, involved international adoption of a two year old girl in Brazil. Finally- Roberta was going to be a mom! We were at the last step- lining up requisite prophylactic vaccines, and shopping plane tickets to Recife, Brazil to complete the adoption; having already spoken with the couple that we would be staying with during the final judge proceedings there. Roberta was very fit- swam laps before school, biked, rowed, never smoked, ideal diet. No medical red flags. She was coping with recent onset left shoulder pain and increasing fatigue/dyspnea while doing her morning laps. Roberta attributed this to a difficult school year, final adoption preparations, and overdoing exercise- a reasonable assumption to make. Ongoing physical therapy was halted when a left axillary lymph node was palpated by the PT- visibly enlarged, firm, mobile, painless. Subsequent scans and a axillary lymph node biopsy/path report revealed widely disseminated, poorly differentiated, highly anaplastic adenocarcinoma- cancer of unknown primary source. The very next day after our initial Oncologist meeting, a port was implanted, and an aggressive chemo protocol began. The darkest day of all was watching Roberta carefully folding all the clothes for our expectant daughter, and placing them into boxes for Goodwill. Roberta died on Aug 30, 1992 at age 39. The cancer relentlessly grew despite the aggressive chemo, and the primary source was never found- even after a thorough post mortem autopsy search led and conducted by her Oncologist.

After Roberta, life was mostly just going straight from work to many night science classes, always searching for the unknowable- how could this happen, and why? I took the MCAT in 1997 and 1998, and received a medical school acceptance letter in early 1999. I didn’t follow through on this- a recurring and nagging major life regret. I listened to the advice of others (you’re too old, you’ll be 250K in debt, etc.), instead of my gut. The other side of this outcome was that I was probably meant to be with Sue, for her future loss. I didn’t fully comprehend this, until several years later.

Sue- Sue and I were instant friends from our first night class together (1991), and Sue and Roberta quickly became close friends as well. First A & P class, and I was scanning for an open seat. A male was sitting next to Sue. Sue kicked his seat, and said “move”. He did, and an immediate bond was formed between Sue and I. Sue was the only one that I kept in steady contact with after Roberta’s death. We were always in sync with each other, and there were never any secrets between us. Best friends from the start, then more years later, when it was time.

Sue did everything the hard way- single mom, early poverty, clawing her way to a college degree (while working minimum wage jobs), and Sue frequently skipped meals herself, so that her boy Rich could eat. For several years, she and Rich lived in a small house that just had an outhouse, with no indoor plumbing (Calla Rd, Youngstown OH). Her dad spent his nights and weekends digging out a half basement by hand, bucket by bucket, for this tiny house; and installed plumbing, and a central heat system himself. Early poverty changed Sue, and she never forgot her humble beginnings. Sue enlisted in the USAF at age 32 as Airman Basic, and eventually retired as Captain. Sue earned many awards/accolades along the way. Sue represented the USAF at both of President Reagan's D.C. Inaugurations, flew in a F15 fighter jet (her barf bag was unused!), among many other highlights.

Sue single handedly raised her only child Rich to be educated, empathetic, and he was her gift to the world- one of those rare males to emulate. Both Sue and Rich were absolutely fearless at their core, but with an easy going and kind demeanor front and center. Sue’s goal in her RN night classes was to assist her dad Mill (cardiac, an MI in 1990) in caring for her mom Peg (a veteran hospital RN), who had a 1990 diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Sue often drove Friday evening after nursing classes to her dad's house (8 hours away), to assist with her mom for the weekend. Sunday afternoon, back to USAF day duties and evening RN classes- month after month, for several years. Sue asked her dad in 1993 if they would consider returning to the Camp Mackall, NC area (where they married in 1944, prior to Mill shipping out in WWII), if she went with them. Sue left a safe, active duty USAF position to become a new hospital R.N. in the Camp Mackall, NC area in 1994, moving with her parents. Sue shifted from USAF active duty to Reserves, and pulled her weekend duties at Seymour Johnson AFB, several hours away. In some remarkable serendipity- Rich was assigned to Seymour Johnson AFB (4th Medical group) at the same time his mom was assigned to the base hospital nursing unit. Sue took care of both parents in her home, and her mom Margaret died in 1996, and dad Milliard died in 1999. Neither ever entered a skilled nursing facility or in-hospital hospice, as was the wish of both. Sue’s relationship with her dad evolved from daughter/father to best friends, over his last several years. This was Sue.

Rich died while active duty in September 2004 at age 35- a soul crushing devastation that only another mother can even begin to grasp, or imagine. I instantly knew that if I was not with her, and was a D.O. somewhere in the states- Sue would not have survived this. My correct place in life was to be at her side, to help her endure. She did so, and some good came from the awful. Sue inspired and actively encouraged her two nieces to reinvent themselves in their early 30’s, just as she did many years prior. Becky became a hospital BSN, and Mindy completed a MS in Forensic Science/Chemistry with all night classes, directly because of Sue. Sue was so very proud of both. Sue started a small cottage candle business (Coral Night Candles) in 2007 to honor her son Rich, also to fund a yearly college scholarship award in his name. Sue helped to steer Rich’s two children in the right life direction until her death, and this moral obligation continues with me to this day to carry on.

Neuro-Oncologist Dr. Ashley Sumrall knew Sue’s history, also the full depth of her character. Sue loved and completely trusted Dr. Sumrall and her head R.N. Ashley Schulze from the first meeting on, and this connection was/is unbreakable. Dr. Sumrall's clinical decisions, assisted by RN Schulze, added an additional bonus year to Sue's lifespan. Neither will ever be forgotten. I hold these two individuals up to others as the example of what to aspire to in patient care as an MD/DO and RN, and both are an indelible part of Sue’s life story.

Sue died at home on October 12, 2013. Her last written note to me was composed and printed out by Sue at home in early June 2013, before her vision deteriorated further. As she wrote, “As endless and forever as the sky itself... you and I. You are my forever love. Hang in there, I’ll be OK, and we’ll play our days away”. This simple card remains at my side every day, and I fully intend to hold Sue to that promise, when I hopefully see her again someday.

I retook the MCAT for a 3rd time in Sept 2014 at age 60- mostly to be a positive role model for my premed niece Carly, and to plant an early future seed for Sue’s granddaughter Logan. I did slightly better than I did in 1998, without any practice tests.

Since then, I have come to the understanding that the answers I was always looking for are rooted in giving back to others- where you can, in small ways and sometimes large, under the radar, every single day. This is how I choose to honor these two fabulous and strong women, and this is my evolved take on life, loss, and how we’re supposed to make sense of it all. After kidney and liver donations, there is much work left to do. Sue’s granddaughter is premed now, and I am doing my level best to gently steer her to thread the needle to eventual med school acceptance, which as you are well aware is immensely difficult. That will be one heck of a good outcome from the horrible. And Sue’s grandson Nathan- similar upward trajectory, just not medical. I always try to lead by example- with my family, Sue’s family, and I am still in contact with Roberta’s sister, niece and nephew in CA. Most of Sue’s family is centered in and around UPMC. They’re all pulling for me to successfully complete a post renal living liver donation there, and I am determined to do just that.

Thank you all for your individual roles in this evolving process, both from the past and the present time. Thank you for reading about Roberta and Sue- two profoundly resilient, positive and extraordinary women, who changed many lives in untold ways. Both comprise my core perspective and motivation source in absolutely everything since, and everything yet to be. I'm glad that you now know a little something about these two strong, independent and compassionate souls. These two were/are the very best ever."