In October, I launched the website for my latest photojournalism endeavor, Project Hands. Many of the stories come from guests of the Rescue Mission, a comprehensive homeless shelter in Roanoke. Check it out at StoriesWeHold.com.
A space for miracles | as told by Joy
When I went to Carilion Hospital in April, I had an extended belly, which I thought was maybe because of gas or fluid. I looked like I was six months pregnant. My legs were filled with fluid. They were huge. I started having these symptoms in February, but I kept ignoring them. I took home remedies like Gas-X and Milk of Magnesia. Maybe it's just gas or bloating, I thought. So I ignored it until that dreaded day in April when I went to the emergency room. I was in so much pain. Short of breath and very tired.
When they started looking at my vitals, they realized I was very anemic and needed fluids. My hemoglobin was very low. They wanted to run some more tests, and that's when they gave me the verdict of cancer. I was to see the OB-GYN oncologist, who examined me further and did a CAT Scan. They determined it was stage four cancer, and they wanted to operate immediately.
But I had a previous engagement. I had speaking engagements throughout this year, where I was going to speak to women's groups about Africa and women in agriculture and about sustainable environments. Public speaking is my passion. So I postponed my surgery. I was going to speak to 250 women in Ohio.
Just before I was going to give this talk, however, I collapsed at the elevator. I was rushed to South Pointe, which is the emergency care section of Cleveland Clinic. What's remarkable about this story is that Shirlene saved my life. I collapsed, went to the toilet in the hotel room and fell back. I was dying and she saved my life by calling 911.
That was the first indication that things were not well for me. Even though I had been giving this pronouncement of cancer, it looked like it was even worse. When we went to South Pointe, they told me that blood was flooding up my lungs and that I needed to have surgery immediately — otherwise, I would not live beyond six hours.
But Joy, determined to give her talk, convinced doctors to postpone surgery yet again. Anticipating Joy's stubbornness, Shirlene had already contacted event organizers and forbade them to allow Joy to present. Joy was left with no option but to have the surgery.
We went to Cleveland Clinic, where the surgery was performed by the brilliant surgeon called Doctor Knight. He removed a 12-centimeter tumor from my abdomen, a complete hysterectomy. When he opened me up, blood gushed out. I lost two pints of blood in the OR, which is the equivalent of the blood that circulates in your body. They had to pump me with more blood and delicately perform this operation, which was like a dance of life and death.
I was then taken to the ICU, where I slowly began a process of recovery. I couldn't walk. I could hardly talk. My body was in total shock from the operation. It was like an out-of-body experience. I had never gone through any kind of major surgery. I had Shirlene, who had been there for the talk, who now became a caregiver by default. She's a friend, a business partner, a mentor, a sister in the Lord. Now she was forced in to being the caregiver and power of attorney over my medical records. Everything was happening so fast.
After a month in Cleveland, Joy and Shirlene returned to Roanoke, where Joy worked to regain her walking, talking, writing and cognitive skills with the team at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. After a month of physical and occupational rehab, Joy left the hospital on July 4. She weighed just 87 pounds.
I was in shock at the way I looked. I was skeletal. At one point, I didn't know where I was. I've never gone through anything like that in my entire life, and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. It was horrific. But by the grace of God and by bringing angels like Shirlene into my life to encourage me, sleep in a cot next to my bed, watch out for my best interests and be the caregiver that she is, I made it.
After Joy was discharged, she and Shirlene lived in an Extended Stay America, with the help of the American Cancer Society. Eventually, though, Joy's social worker suggested moving to the Rescue Mission. It would free her mind from finances, the social worker argued, as she and Shirlene had both depleted their savings. The decision to transition to the Rescue Mission was not an easy one for Joy.
I'm here because I made a decision to be in a place where I would have peace. When the social worker first brought it to my attention, I just couldn't accept it, because it meant admitting that I was homeless. The picture I had of homeless people was very far from what I wanted to be.
I told Shirlene, "If it's a good place, and you can continue to be my caregiver, let's try it." I talked to some of the staff members and they had never had a situation like this. They were so kind and their hearts are so open that they changed things around to accommodate us.
Shirlene is still my caregiver. Every time I think of how far I've come, I can only attribute it to her. She believed in me when no one else believed in me. When I was 87 pounds and everybody else thought I was going to die — including my doctor — she never lost faith in my ability to live. I always say that love kept me here. Love saved me, and love kept me here. It's a story of friendship and of trust. She became a sister. She knew me much more intimately as a sister because she's the one who fed me. She's the one who bathed me. I was completely useless. If I didn't have her, I wouldn't be alive.
Now, though I'm much better, I still have those bouts — cancer brain, as they call it — where I can be disoriented. I take a bunch of medication that makes me dizzy and blurs my vision. But I value life, and I value the quality of life that I have now. Cancer has made me a better person, but I don't want it to be the moral of this story. No, I wish I didn't have cancer. I hate having this disease to the very core of me. But it has also made me appreciate every little kindness that I get from the wonderful women who are here with me. It has afforded me an open heart, a bigger heart. I value each day that I'm alive. That's what I scream every day, that I'm alive. Until that dreaded day when I will go. But I always give God his space for miracles.
God goes first | as told by Shirlene
It sounds good, but to me, it's not a big deal. I am just being her friend, contributing to humanity. I gave her family my word when she was in Cleveland. I gave them my word that I would watch out for her and be there for her. I came up old-school, so when I give somebody my word or shake their hand, that means I'm going to do it no matter what.
What have you learned from this experience?
That God is a healer. Even when life is at its darkest, when you're standing at death's doors, God is there saying, "Let me go first." I've seen the love, power and nurturing of God. That sweet relationship that God and I have got sweeter. He was my comforter.
A season of praying | as told by Joy
What's the strongest aspect of your friendship?
The fact that we believe in God. We believe in Jesus Christ, our Savior, our brother, our King and Redeemer. We believe in the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. He's the Comforter. We believe that the love of God is so incredible, so unmeasurable and so beyond anything that you can ever imagine. Sending his Son to die and to take our place on that cross is something that is so deep, that it transcends anything we can ever describe. That's what became our foundation. That's what we shared through this journey.
She would get mad at me because I'm so stubborn, and I would get annoyed with her because she pushed me. No, that's the wrong word. She didn't push me; she knew that I had it in me to do what I needed to do. She just believed that I was going to make it when I didn't believe in myself. Through it all, through the conflict, we would go together in prayer. It was a season of praying.
A makeshift communion | as told by Shirlene
The test of friendship | as told by Joy
The main thing that I'd like to share is that life is precious. To value life at all costs. America is the best country in the world. It has the best medical facilities, the best medical personnel. I always say that Roanoke saved my life. I came here thinking that I was here for something else — reuniting with an old friend, maybe expanding a business. But I came here because it saved my life. I was diagnosed here. I got treated here. They nurtured me back to health here. We discovered what kind of friends we were to each other here.
When you are in adversity, you really get to know who your friends are. They are few and far in between. But the ones who stay with you will be your friends for life. How can I look at Shirlene and say that we'll never be friends again? We'll always be friends after this experience. I remember looking at her one day and saying, "Look how far we've come. The best is yet to come." She saw me in a skeletal position, and she never flinched. She never gave up on me. My own folks gave up on me, because cancer had killed two of my family friends. To know that their daughter, their sister, their auntie has cancer — it was a death sentence for my family. They didn't believe that I would make it.
Life is so precious. In one day, my life changed when they told me I have cancer. This time last December ... I don't know how to explain it. It's so surreal to be told in the doctor's office that you have cancer. It's like the world stops. Everything stops. You can't make any plans. What plans can you make when you're told you're at stage four? You're looking at a will. Life is precious. You don't have to have cancer to know that. Live your life to the best of your ability. Be good to other people. Smile. Be happy with even the smallest kindness.
I always say that Roanoke saved my life. I came here thinking that I was here for something else — reuniting with an old friend, maybe expanding a business. But I came here because it saved my life. I was diagnosed here. I got treated here. They nurtured me back to health here. We discovered what kind of friends we were to each other here.