Family House Diaries: A Priceless Friendship

Wed, Apr 13, 2011 — The life-threatening illnesses of their first-born children unite two couples in a friendship that each expects to bind them the rest of their days.

Family House Diaries: A Priceless Friendship click to enlarge From left to right: Michael Beard, Judith Beard, Randy Sperling and Shelly Sperling enjoy a lighter moment at SECU Family House.

What drew Randy to Judith was that Judith was clearly in a foreign land – geographically, linguistically and medically.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, NC — In the normal order of life, Randy and Shelly Sperling and Judith and Michael Beard never would have met.

But the life-threatening illnesses of each couple’s first-born thrust them into a friendship that each expects to bind them the rest of their days.

The Sperlings of Charlotte, N.C., came to UNC Hospitals in August with their son, Philip, 40, who had suffered for 25 years with a complex medical history which culminated in liver disease. Philip was being evaluated as a candidate for a liver transplant as his condition worsened.

The Beards of Canberra, Australia, came to UNC Hospitals in November to be with their daughter Jane, 38, a Stage IV colon cancer patient, who lives in Raleigh with her husband, Rodney, and their three children while Rodney is on a two-year global assignment for his employer.

The wives – Randy, 62, and Judith, 60 – met at SECU Family House the Tuesday before Thanksgiving when Philip and Jane were hospitalized. SECU Family House is a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes away from UNC Hospitals that provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“On the journey with Philip in and out of medical facilities we were always meeting new people, and I had grown very comfortable asking ‘what brings you here?’ ” Randy said.  “When loved ones are sick there is an interconnectedness that binds you with strangers in the same boat.”

But what drew Randy to Judith was that Judith was clearly in a foreign land – geographically, linguistically and medically – and Randy knew she could help make Judith more comfortable until Michael, 61, arrived the next week. Randy helped Judith get acclimated at SECU Family House and navigate UNC Hospitals.

Randy stayed at SECU Family House while Philip was at UNC Hospitals, and Shelly, 63, a long-time public school teacher and businessman, visited on weekends. Judith and Michael lived at Family House until early January when they found an apartment near Jane and family.

“It never felt like a motel,” Judith said.  “The fact of the matter is that every single night together, over a bowl of popcorn, we would go over the day and discuss the prospects for the next day.”

“We would focus on the good things that happened and on what we could have done better,” said Michael.  “And we kept reminding ourselves to take one day at a time.”

“We had made it through 25 years that way,” Shelly said.  “When stress raises itself up, you have to break it into manageable blocks so you can handle things in a more productive way.”

“Under stress, your perspective gets out of kilter,” Randy said. “But we knew we’d get an honest assessment by talking with each other.”

“We had no barriers, and we all said exactly what we thought,” Judith added.  “We all took that honesty as the support it was.”

Philip was on the liver transplant list, which gives the sickest patients priority, but time was running out. Meanwhile, various complications kept Jane more in than out of the hospital.

Despite their individual emotional roller-coasters, the Sperlings and the Beards were all fully apprised of what was happening with their respective children.

At 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 2, Philip died while awaiting a new liver. Michael and Judith drove Randy and Shelly home to Charlotte in the Sperlings’ car that night.

“We could not let them drive themselves or go home alone and that was the one thing we could do for them,” Judith said.

“I don’t remember the drive, just that they took care of us,” Randy said. “I worried about not being able to continue being in Chapel Hill for Judith.”

The Beards spent the night with the Sperlings, got breakfast, taught Randy how to use Skype™ (the software application that allows users to chat over the Internet), then rented a car and returned to Jane at UNC Hospitals.

Although Jane continues to undergo treatment and deal with complications, her parents, both retired government employees, must return to Australia later this month before their visas expire.

While they are reluctant to leave, the Beards know that Jane will continue to receive excellent, empathetic care at UNC Hospitals. “We hope and pray Jane is getting a good extension on life,” Judith said, adding that she and Michael are forever grateful to the Sperlings for their love, support and help in developing coping strategies for what lies ahead.

“We don’t love the result, but we know that everything that could have been done for Philip at UNC Hospitals was done,” Randy said.  “His care was nothing less than superior, and it was caring care.  And SECU Family House is an extension of that quality of care.”

The new quartet of friends will continue to be an integral force in each other’s lives regardless of the miles between them.

“We know in our hearts that we’ll be there for each other always,” Judith said.  “We like and respect each other too much for this to be just a passing friendship. We’ve been through too much together.”

“Our lives would not be complete again without us being in touch,” Randy said.

“We put our trust in God and continue to do so as we all know He brought us together for a reason,” Judith said.  “Our meeting was no accident.  What were the chances of us having met otherwise?”

To learn more about Philip’s journey through the eyes and heart of his mother Randy, go to www.patientaction.com.  The site, which is still a work in progress, contains Randy’s blog and useful resources for how to become a patient advocate.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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