The Dream Team Miracle

I met my wife, Ilene back in 1985 at a singles dance in Dallas. In addition to her compelling personality and good looks, Ilene told me that she knew Bob Pulford when he played for the Los Angeles Kings. As a teacher in the L.A. Unified School District, she had taught one of Pully’s children. I couldn’t believe my good fortune – falling in love with a hockey soul mate.

As our 19th anniversary approached last December 22 – our first anniversary without the backdrop of NHL hockey – our world was rocked like a slap shot to the chinstrap when my wife was diagnosed with stage-four cancer in her breast, lungs and liver. When the December 4th diagnosis was made, her oncologist, Dr. Christopher T. Stokoe steadfastly admitted that he was “buying her time.”

When our world came to a numbing standstill that early December afternoon, I remember then-Stars GM Bob Gainey losing his wife to cancer, and recalled then-Dallas Star Center Joe Nieuwendyk’s comment on the immense sadness that pervaded his very being several years after losing his mom to Cancer.

Then I decided – I decided, mind you – that my wife was not going to lose. I began feeding her sports clich├ęs such as “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” and nobody goes into a hockey game expecting to lose… you’re not losing this one.” Look, even when you’re facing elimination from the playoffs, you don’t ever admit that possibility – and my wife was facing a three-games-to-none in a best-of-seven series predicament.

I suppose my psyche went into overdrive – never once did I consider that I would lose her, not as long as the oncologist gave us hope, which he did. Like a reliable 3rd line winger patrolling the boards and corners, I did whatever I had to do. I kept her spirits up – my pep talks were upbeat — nor would I permit her to digress into negativity. I fed her, retrieved her medications, and did whatever I could to make life easier.

Although her illness would’ve meant surrendering a large number of Stars games were there a season, those long, windswept North Texas winter nights would’ve been much more entertaining with a hockey game on the tube. Instead, I busied myself with my DVD collection as well as TV shows like Law and Order and Whose Line Is It.

Thankfully, a scant nine months later, my wife, a business professional, has seen her prognosis upgraded to a “promising future.” Her cancer is now in remission, and she has emerged from her single mastectomy in mid-June with flying colors.

Obviously, she will have to “manage” her condition the rest of her life – not unlike someone with diabetes or asthma – and accepts this prognosis just as a hockey fan sitting in the lower bowl of American Airlines Center realizes they must maintain a continuous watch for errant hockey pucks. Having managed staffs numbering in the twenties, my wife is confident that she can “manage” this disease with the intention of maintaining a high quality of life.

My wife, Ilene Stern, an ardent Dallas Stars fan, feels a profound need to communicate to other women – especially those stricken with cancer and those who have loved ones managing the disease – about how she defied the odds. How she battled back from “the darker side of hell” against tumor counts in the 9,000′s to those now in the single and lower double digits – in other words, normal.

That’s why I am writing this article – as a tribute to my wife’s dogged determination to keep living, and the undying love that the members of her Support Group provided to help her manage the experience of undergoing heavy doses of Chemotherapy en route to her survival.

And just in time to enjoy the resumption of our favorite sport!

That’s why I am writing this article, as a tribute to my wife’s dogged determination to keep living, and the undying love that the members of her support group provided to help her manage the experience of undergoing heavy doses of chemotherapy en route to her survival.

“The only way I was able to successfully complete 21 weeks of chemotherapy and grow so much stronger and surer of myself was to first build a “circle of support,” and that circle is a key reason why I am on the road to recovery,” she said recently. “Although I’m an accomplished executive and fundraiser with 25 years of success and achievements, I needed to surround myself with strong, reassuring people who could give me the strength to undertake this daunting task.”

Because several of the Beatles’ song lyrics are considered prophetic, my wife has adopted as her personal rallying cry one of their hits from their Blue Album – A Little Help From My Friends.

Ilene’s Support Group — comprised of friends and business acquaintances – actually began forming itself when members began showing up at the Medical Center of Plano in suburban Dallas. Ilene was readmitted to the hospital less than two weeks after his initial diagnosis with a severe case of mucositis – the swelling, irritation, and ulceration of the mucosal cells that line the digestive tract from the mouth to the anus. And while the initial dose of chemotherapy caused the condition and prevented Ilene from remembering Hanukah, Christmas, Ramadan, Kwanza, and our 19th Anniversary (December 22), it also began obliterating the deadly tumors that were threatening to kill her. After she was released on December 28 and began opening holiday gifts in our Plano home, the experience was happily punctuated by dozens of telephone calls from members of her burgeoning support group.

And on June 14, minutes before undergoing her single mastectomy in the Plano Diagnostic Center at the capable hands of Plano surgeon Dr. David Hampe, her anteroom resembled the Stars locker room 10 minutes before the opening face-off – no less than 10 friends were huddled around her in a show of love and support moments before she would be wheeled into surgery, while another dozen or so sat out in the public waiting area.

Her Support Group includes at least one unknown member. My father, Ray Stern, a security guard at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, was working the AHL Phantoms’ Calder Cup-clinching victory over Chicago on Friday, June 10. When he was asked if he could work a celebration block party event the following Monday, he begged off, explaining that he would be in suburban Dallas to lend support “when my daughter-in-law, Ilene Stern, undergoes a mastectomy.” Apparently, someone got word to the JumboTron operator, because the crowd of 23,000+ was treated to this brief message of support – GOOD LUCK TO ILENE STERN.

“I’m still here because of the love of my family,” said Ilene as she wiped away a grateful tear during a recent trip to Texas Tech with our son Jordan (who is considering the renowned West Texas University), “and because of the love from the members of my support group.”

Successful & Driven

Ilene Stern is a driven, goal-oriented and successful 51-year-old Type A business woman who prides herself on meeting and exceeding fundraising goals, generating dollars to make bricks and mortar a reality, and fast-tracking with the most prestigious of business and civic leaders in Collin and Dallas Counties. The Vice President for Advancement, she currently raises money for the 15-month old Frontiers of Flight Museum on Lemmon Avenue near Love Field in Dallas.

Despite her demeanor as a self-made and highly-respected executive, she had difficulty accepting her diagnosis. “Even more daunting was the prospect of seeking help from friends, colleagues, and even one of my major donors, but I did what I had to do,” she recalls. “I became a student, asking Dr. Stokoe to explain and re-explain terms and protocols which he did with tenderness and lay language as I struggled with my weakened and chemo-filled body. With different members of my Support Group surrounding me, I learned about the chemo itself. Terms such as cat scans and CT Scans, and mastectomy surgery were explained to me and members of my support circle.”

Instead of taking notes on a million dollar prospect and holding a donor’s hand, Ilene relied on members of her support group to take notes for her, and hold her hand during those nerve-wracking meetings with Dr. Stokoe. “They also gave me their shoulders to shed what seemed like a million tears, and then they enabled me to laugh at the gallows humor,” said Ilene with a laugh. “I also began to accept my wig, which Chief, one of our lead volunteers at the Frontiers of Flight Museum and a retired Air Force Officer named “Chief,” dubbed ‘Ann Margaret.’ I remember trekking to the office each day with no eyelashes or eyebrows, joking to my support group that at least I wouldn’t have to shave my legs for awhile! My support group included my work colleagues, who were kissing and hugging me each and every morning with inspiration and encouragement.”

Among those at the flight museum located on Lemmon Avenue near Love Field were Gil, who had recently lost his mother to cancer and was fodder for Ilene’s soul and heart. There was also Anne Marie, the office manager who had also lost her mother to Breast Cancer and provided Ilene with emotional support despite the obvious pain Ilene could see on her face in reliving her own mother’s journey. Museum volunteers Eileen and Jean (a Cancer survivor) visited my wife every Friday before their shifts.

On the home front, I assumed the role of “home caretaker” and “dinner assembler,” while our 17-year-old son Jordan (a senior at Plano Sr. High School) worried internally and demonstrated little emotion until he couldn’t hold it in any longer. Every once in awhile, he would have an emotional meltdown.

In my dual positions as a substitute teacher in the Plano Independent School District and Public Relations Consultant for Frisco, Texas-based Maverick Residential Mortgage, Inc. (a dynamic and swiftly growing three-year old firm that does business in 25 states), I was unable to accompany my wife to her weekly chemo sessions. Oh, I was there at the end of the day to feed her M&M’s, hold her hand when the needle was removed from the port in her chest, drive her home, get her undressed and into bed, feed her dinner and monitor her sleep-induced state. But from a professional and even emotional perspective, I also needed the support of Ilene’s support group.

Ilene’s new world was swirling around her like a tornado. Her elderly parents buoyed her spirits via the telephone, although their own health issues prevented them from being there in person. Ilene’s brother Bob called her each and every night. As a dentist and testicular cancer survivor himself, he could provide her with expectations of her pain, worry and concerns, but she still needed people around her during chemo to drive away her darkest fears as the needle penetrated her chest to deliver the “fluids of life.”

“Melissa Etheridge was quoted as saying that ‘chemo is the darker side of hell,’ and she was on the mark,” said Ilene. “But because I focused on my friendships with the members of my support group, I was able to focus on more positive images when they were present for my chemo sessions.”

Ilene’s support group was led in no small part by her archangel and literally, her savior and oncologist, Dr. Christopher T. Stokoe of Texas Oncology located just a few hockey rink surfaces from our home. The doctor responded to her question about joining a support group by noting that most met in the evening (a time when Ilene was crawling into bed), or during the workday (when she persisted in the business of fundraising). Dr. Stokoe cautioned that sometimes support groups can be a place of venting and anger, which would not help Ilene in her quest to heal.

“How could I ever get better leaning on strangers who themselves are in pain?” she asked me. “I wasn’t buying into the peer support angle because I was so very ill, and my need for treatment was so pressing.”

The doctor-patient relationship was unique from the start. “I’m not sure Dr. Stokoe believed me when I first communicated to him through a wall of tears in early December that I would be his miracle!” said Ilene. “But I saw the change in his eyes every time he conveyed the results of the lowered tumor count from 9000 in December to eight in June (the normal range is between 0-33). I think that he began to truly believe and appreciate my uniqueness!

“A common myth is that many women fall in love with their gynecologists because the doctors are caring and connected to each and every patient,” she added. “I had never experienced that connection. I did not know this kind of love. As a happily married woman now fighting for my life, this new man in my life would not be a new lover, he would not be taking me for delicious dinners or to the theater, but instead, his calling was much higher. He would be giving me a second chance at life.”

To build her “support group” – a unique and diverse group of women and men – Ilene personally handpicked these “individuals” from her current and recent professional lives. Most are from the Dallas area, while a few live as far away as Florida, California, and Pennsylvania. In addition to “being there” for her, various members of her support group ensured that Ilene would be the beneficiary of prayers and blessings in so many ways, such as appearing on prayers lists and prayer circles.

“I will never forget any of these tokens of support,” Ilene said. “I believe it took all of this energy and synergy…and more, to bring my cancer to remission. And it is my support group, my very own “circle of support” that I credit for saving my life.

In addition to Dr. Stokoe, each locally based member of Ilene’s handpicked support circle – or Dream Team, as I like to call it – alternately took time from their professional and/or personal lives to sit with her in Chemo. The cast includes:

Judy, CEO of her own construction company and a vendor from Ilene’s previous fund raising institutions,

Julie, who has worked with Ilene at two organizations,

Tricia, her fund raising protégé and friend of more than 10 years,

Karen, a partner at a Dallas consulting firm, colleague and friend for more than 20 years,

Gail, the CEO of her own Irving-based public relations firm and a friend for more than five years,

Cathey, the Operations Manager for a Dallas-based non-profit organization,

Kurt, her clinical guru and pharmaceutical expert, a very old and dear friend whom she had hired more than a decade before in Melbourne, Florida, and who now lives in Tallahassee,

Janice, a truly unique member of the Dream Team as the chemo scheduling coordinator at Texas Oncology who visited her not once, but twice the day Ilene underwent her successful mastectomy surgery,

Beverly, Ilene’s oldest and dearest friend in Southern California who “held my hands virtually over the telephone,”

Carolyn, a Lewisville, Texas-based dermatologist and former member of the Board of Directors at the University for which Ilene served as Executive Vice President, and who “relinquished more Mondays filled with patients for which I’ll ever be able to thank her,”

Ray and Ann, a husband and wife who are among Dallas’s most influential business leaders who Ilene befriended at the University, who called during her chemo sessions to help her find the sunshine through the storm and clouds,

Bruce, an extended member of the family who came through with moral support on some of her darker “side effect” days,

Betty, the Director of a major local non-for-profit foundation added Ilene to her church’s prayer list, and would check in regularly to check on her progress,

Dan, Ilene’s boss “who treated me with so much compassion and professional dignity, enabling me to spend much time away from the office,”

Billie Williamson, senior partner with Ernst and Young, whom Ilene has known for two decades dating back to SMU in the mid-1980′s,

Monsignor Milam J. Joseph, President of the University that Ilene served for six years, and whose courage was contagious and support unwavering,

My mother and father, Ray and Marlene Stern, who flew in from Philadelphia to be with me and Jordan and help keep the household level during Ilene’s mastectomy,

Dannie and Mary Margaret, both breast cancer survivors – one a major donor from the University – who each took turns holding her hand and head, walked Ilene to the bathroom after surgery, and placed ice chips in her mouth. “They both prayed over me and kissed my forehead before they departed for their homes and husbands.”

“Let’s be honest, only with the guiding light of their love and support was I able to return to the office on Tuesday after sleeping off the side effects of Monday’s chemo sessions,” said Ilene. “Because of their companionship and their love, I learned to chuckle and wear sneakers to work on Tuesday for quick departures to the bathroom.”

As Monsignor Joseph would often espouse during Ilene’s career at the University and in commenting on the Dream Team, “there’s more going on here than is going on here.”

“Monsignor was right,” said Ilene. “I just didn’t know how deep his truth would be until I got to the other side. There were 15 lifetimes of intimate and personal conversations that ensued during my chemo handholding, as different members shared their lives with me, and heard me share mine with them. Good thing for everyone involved that what is said in the chemo infusion booth stays in chemo!”

The Dream Team was so well fortified and committed that several members insisted they could fill in on a moment’s notice if anyone “bailed” at the last minute. Ilene needed backup only once, when a member became ill with the flu and didn’t want to attend for fear that she might be contagious.

“Some of the members created games to play on the days when I had to drink the chalky substance (barium) for pet scans,” said Ilene. “Each sip provided me with another reward. We laughed until we cried, but I drank down the horrific liquid that they had somehow dubbed ‘berry shake.’

“While my husband’s love and care-giving were invaluable, his courage was immeasurably bolstered by phone calls from my support group,” my wife added, and she was correct.

I mentioned to her on numerous occasions that her Support Group would not permit her to sink into the morass of self-pity, instilling in her the bravery to reach deep within her soul to recover, all the while raising funds for the Frontiers of Flight Museum.

I remember early-April, after her cancer was in remission, when she awakened to a warm, sun-drenched Saturday with an ear-to-ear grin. When I asked why she was smiling, she told me that she was “getting by with a lot of help from my friends.”

When I heard this, I broke into a ditty that opened with… “What would you think if I sang out of tune, would you stand up and walk out on me…”

Ilene Stern’s chemotherapy has been transitioned to Herceptin, a man-made chemo with less intensive side effects. (Herceptin recently was awarded FDA approval). She is infused every three weeks. She plans to catch more than a few Stars games this season. When she recently asked Dr. Stokoe about her post-mastectomy progress, the renowned physician replied in his lilting British dialect, “My dear, I am ecstatic!”

Toasting Dr. Stokoe

Click to enlarge

Note on the photo accompanying this piece – Ilene (in the green suit and red wig) and members of her support group celebrate her 51st birthday on May 8 at Rick Stein’s in a toast to Dr. Stokoe. The photo was matted and presented by Ilene to Dr. Stokoe a week later.

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