Guest Contributor Alison Bell | Photo courtesy of Jerry Camarillo, fotoaztecstudio.com
For some women, Mother’s Day is a joyous occasion to honor their moms. For others, it’s more a rite of obligation. And for still others, who are dealing with a chronic illness of a mother, the holiday takes on a special poignancy.
At Hillsides, our chief advancement officer, Nancy Garni, was diagnosed with leukemia in January. She’s undergone three rounds of chemotherapy, is soon to face a fourth, and is awaiting a stem cell transplant that will give her the best chance of a recovery. Besides being a driving force at Hillsides for more than 25 years, Nancy is also the mother of Kati, 23, who also works at Hillsides.
Mother’s Day has always meant a lot to Kati because she is an only child and was raised primarily by her mother after her parents split up when she was two. But this year, says Kati, “I’ve never been more grateful to have my mom in my life. I’ve realized that everything I have, and who I am today, is because of her. She is so kind and generous, and has such a strong spirit. I am so happy to be able to be with her that day and enjoy the time with her.”
The months since Nancy’s diagnosis have not been easy for Kati, but she says she has gained strength from the way her mother has handled her illness. “Her commitment to and persistence in beating this [disease] makes me even much more appreciative of being her daughter,” she says.
Nancy draws her strength in part from her decision to control what she can in her life. “I refuse to be defined as a sick person,” she says. “Every day, I get up, and think about two – three things I want to get done in the day, and this sustains me.”
She’s a person of faith, she adds. “I have to believe there is a cure on the horizon for me.” She also feels she is in the best hands possible – those of Dr. Stephen Forman at City of Hope in Duarte, CA. Dr. Forman is a co-leader of the Hematologic Malignancies Program and an international expert in leukemia and lymphoma.
In addition, Nancy is focused on giving back, just as she has for the last quarter of the century at Hillsides. She is dedicated to spreading the message about the need for stem cell donors for patients with leukemia and other blood cancers. “This keeps me focused on hope, rather than on the reality of my disease,” she says.
Both mom and daughter have discovered that unforeseen benefits have come along with the illness. “I try to see it as a blessing as it’s helped me crystallize what’s really important in my life, my family: Kati, and my husband Mike,” says Nancy.
Kati’s priorities have changed as well. “The trauma I’ve experienced has been like nothing else, and it’s jolted me into realizing I have to take care of myself,” she says. She now makes sure to eat healthy and most nights after work, walks the three-mile loop around the Pasadena Rose Bowl.
For Mother’s Day, Kati, Nancy, Mike, and some friends will be going out to one of Nancy’s favorite restaurants for lunch and then will sit in Nancy’s English garden at her home in Pasadena, CA for dessert and presents.
Both are real treats for Nancy. Due to the risk of infection caused by a low white blood cell count, since starting treatment she has been unable to go out in public or enjoy her garden where she used to spend hours tending to her hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and lavender plants.
Nancy’s blood cell count is currently stable enough for her to spend time in the garden on Mother’s Day and to even don a pair of gardening gloves and help her daughter and husband do some planting.
“We’ve both learned to appreciate the moment,” says Kati, “and that is what we will be doing, surrounded by family and friends, this Sunday.”
Learn more about stem cell transplants
A stem cell transplant is a procedure where faulty stem cells are replaced with healthy ones, which helps stimulate new bone marrow growth and restores the immune system. For patients with leukemia and other blood cell cancers, a transplant is the best chance of a cure. To learn more about joining a registry to become a donor, please visit http://bethematch.org/.
Alison Bell, a communications and development associate in Hillsides advancement services, is an author and writing instructor.