Friends Turned Caretakers Extraordinaire
Debbie Attebery, Director of Imaging for SSM St. Anthony Hospital, oversees several departments including diagnostic x-ray, CT, ultrasound, MRI, and a few others. One of her staff and colleagues, Shay Jones was the Manager of CT, and had recently been promoted to Director of Imaging for St. Anthony Shawnee Hospital. About three months into her position as director, Shay’s mammographer was asking the staff if there was anyone who needed a mammogram. They had an ACR inspection coming up and she was in need of exams for the inspector. Shay, who was 40 at the time, was happy to step up and get her mammogram done. After all, that is what good bosses do.
“None of us were prepared for the shock when Shay was subsequently diagnosed with HER2 Positive DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma In Situ”, Debbie said. “It didn’t seem real. Shay was so young and had no family history of the disease. It took a few days for everything to begin to sink in.”
They learned that Shay’s cancer was very aggressive, and Shay, not being one to back down from a challenge, chose the most aggressive treatment plan, which included four rounds of very strong chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, followed by another three rounds of strong chemo. After that she would continue to have a milder chemo medication every three weeks until she had completed a full year of treatment.
Shay didn’t have any family that lived here in Oklahoma, except for her two minor daughters, but she did have a small group of friends that she had met through SSM. Debbie, the Director of Imaging, Cindy, the Manager of Ultrasound, Rhonda, the Manager of Endoscopy, Stephanie, the Director of Finance, and Sherri, an oncology nurse and former employee of Debbie’s. They became her family of Caretakers, and as a group they decided that Shay would never have to go through any of the fight for her life alone.
“Our first priority was to do the research we needed to fully understand what we were dealing with. We were all healthcare professionals and understood the lingo, so we made sure that at least two of us went with Shay to every appointment. We would go with a list of questions that Shay would need the answers to. One of us would go through the list with the physician (breast surgeon, plastic surgeon or oncologist), and the other would write down all of the answers.
Her team, which she lovingly refers to as her Rack Pack, went to “Chemo Class” with her so they’d know how to help her with her pending hair loss and the side effects of the chemo. Debbie even insisted that Shay and her daughters move into her home, so that she wouldn’t have to come home from chemo or surgery and take care of herself.
But good preparation can’t always guarantee the best outcome. Sometimes, a bit of serendipity falls in your lap and makes a huge difference. When Shay knew her hair would fall out, she called her stylist to see if she’d give her one last cut, or shave before it all fell out. It just so happened that our very own Tarah Warren, a stage four Ovarian Cancer survivor and founder of Tenaciously Teal had been in contact with the salon that Shay’s stylist worked at. Tarah was in search of women diagnosed with cancer and facing hair loss. Her hope was to offer them a Brave Shave, or alternative to watching their hair fall out in clumps. This Brave Shave was more of a celebration. Friends and family were invited. Tenaciously Teal provided treats and covered the expense of the stylist and a makeup artist to make the day special.
“We knew a Brave Shave would be perfect for Shay – who was positive, upbeat and strong throughout her treatments”, Debbie said. Shay definitely shaved in style – with love, music, laughter, cake and wine being shared among Shay’s co-workers, friends and family. Her grandmother from Houston and another friend even shaved their heads along with Shay to show their support.
Afterwards, even though she had purchased seven wigs prior to her Brave Shave, she began wearing her bald head proudly every place she went. She found that total strangers would come over and want to give her a hug, and share that a loved one of theirs had battled cancer. Their kindness reinforced to Shay that she truly wasn’t alone.
Debbie said that Shay also began getting real with her feelings and shared about how she didn’t like the changes that were happening to her – like feeling weak and not being able to think clearly, that she no longer felt complete. By this time she had lost her breasts, her hair and had been stripped of her womanhood. Shay seemed to lose a sense of herself for a while. When she would come home and they were alone, Shay would have to drop the happy face to be able to grieve what cancer had done to her. That’s part of the process too.
Debbie wanted to say something to make her feel better, but there simply aren’t any words for that.
“Sometimes all you can do is to be there for your loved one. Just listen. Don’t try to help or fix something you cannot fix. Just be present.”
She said, “The Rack Pack had to get real with our feelings too and deal with the reality that caretaking is hard emotional work. I also lost my Mom to cancer. It can break your heart. But then you get to be strong again, and you rise up and do what needs to be done.” That’s what caretakers do!
Debbie said that suffering can often lead you to God and prepare you for the next steps. Shay has been given the gift of healing of her body and her spirit. She and members of her team have expressed their gratitude by helping numerous cancer organizations like the Komen Foundation and The American Cancer Society. Shay’s story was featured at the Saint’s Ball in 2017, and her story helped raise $3.5 million to update the Frank C. Love Cancer Wing at St. Anthony Hospital, where Debbie and Shay still deliver Tenaciously Teal’s Care Packs to cancer fighters. Shay has served on the planning committee and walked the Survivor’s Runway twice for Tenaciously Teal’s annual fundraiser, CarePacks and Cocktails, while Debbie and the Rack Pack cheered her on to live a happy, healthy and fulfilling life!
For Debbie Attebery, that life means, “starting each day with a prayer to God to lead me to the people who need me the most.” Debbie and Shay continue their generous acts of kindness helping others in the fight against cancer. Thank you, Debbie, Shay and the rest of the team for all you do for Tenaciously Teal and for so many others who fight this disease. You and your story make a difference and bring hope when it is needed most.