Family House Diaries – How serious illness binds strangers in life-enriching ways

Tue, Jan 25, 2011 — Serious illness most often brings devastating hardship, but it also has the potential to bring blessings with positive impact. Two couples from eastern North Carolina are living proof of how serious illness binds strangers in life-enriching ways.

Family House Diaries – How serious illness binds strangers in life-enriching ways
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This is SECU Family House.

Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care

CHAPEL HILL, NC — Two couples from the far reaches of eastern North Carolina are living proof that serious illness can bind strangers in life-enriching ways.

Greg and Liz Cody of Jarvisburg in Currituck County and Joe and Bonnie Stroud of Edenton in Chowan County met at UNC Hospitals in early 2010 when Greg, 58, and Joe, 59, were being treated for Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a chromosome abnormality caused by a single bone marrow cell mutation.  A relatively uncommon condition, it represents 40 percent of ALL cases in patients over the age of 40 and includes at least one-quarter of all adults with ALL. UNC Hospitals treats between five and 10 patients with the condition annually.


Don Rosenstein, MD, Director, Comprehensive Cancer Support Program, gives an overview of the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program.

“This leukemia is particularly aggressive for people of this age,” said Thomas C. Shea, MD, professor of medicine at the UNC School of Medicine, director of the bone marrow transplant program and associate director for outreach programs at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.  “And when you have people as active as Greg and Joe diagnosed with this, there are lots of other issues to be worked through besides the treatment of the disease.”

Greg and Joe each received a bone marrow transplant, the standard treatment for the disease.  Greg received new marrow from his sister, Teresa, and Joe received his from a near-perfect-match from a female donor who was not a relative. Chemotherapy – and its side effects – followed.

“They each did well with their respective transplants, but each in their own way has had more challenges as an outpatient which is not that unusual in treating this kind of leukemia,” Dr. Shea said. “That’s why it’s so important for a support system of family and friends to be in place – for the patient and the caregivers.”

Bonnie, 58, and Liz, 47, met in a caregivers support group offered through the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program at UNC Lineberger.  Each was relieved to meet a fellow leukemia patient spouse, and they soon discovered they had even more in common:  Bonnie is a second-grade teacher and Liz is a substitute teacher and bus driver in their respective school districts.  Their personal support group was on.

“We realized we lived just across the water of the Albemarle Sound,” said Bonnie. “The more we talked, the more we realized we were walking similar paths.  It’s hard to describe what a comfort it was to meet Liz.”

“Of course, the feeling’s mutual,” Liz said.  “When we weren’t seeing each other regularly in and around UNC Hospitals, we were in touch by phone.  Sometimes I just need to talk, and Bonnie is always there.”

The couples drew even closer during Greg’s and Joe’s required three months post-transplant stays at SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals.  Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“Family House was a lifesaver for me as a caregiver,” Bonnie said.  “I felt a lot more secure knowing we had somewhere to stay where people were familiar with our situation, and we were with others in the same boat.  I knew if I needed help, all I had to do was call.”

“We’re a member of the State Employees' Credit Union, and I now know the $1 the SECU Foundation deducts from paychecks of members [at their direction] to support Family House is not enough for all the good that happens here,” Liz said.

Watching the Codys and Strouds interact at Family House one believes they are like two brothers dining with their wives, discussing events of the day and dreams of their future.

“Bald-headed, we all look alike,” said Joe, wryly, confirming he and Greg are not biological brothers. A former Air Force man and retired high school automotive teacher, Joe longs to return to the marine sales business he owns with his son.

“I hate not working,” said Greg, a licensed well-driller by trade, who’s had to close his business due to illness.

“It’s a guy thing – we can’t wrap our heads around this illness, and we deny it,” Greg said.  “We were on top of the world, taking care of our wives, our families, our homes, putting money in the bank, having fun with our lives and our work. We were the caretakers, the caregivers. Then, bam.”

The hardest part, Joe said, is depression.

“People don’t talk about it, and you don’t really know when you’re there,” Joe said. “It’s not in a textbook about how to deal with it, and I feel like I can only talk to people who’ve been there. Greg’s been helpful.”

“We have leukemia, and we fight leukemia together,” Liz said, adding that faith in God has given them strength. “We know that the Lord doesn’t give us more than we can handle without his help.”

Dr. Shea, a SECU Family House board member and constant advocate of patient and family support, still marvels at the Cody-Stroud bond.

“They have about the same diagnosis, they’re about the same age and from the same part of the state,” Dr. Shea said.  “We don’t see that very often.  I’m pretty sure they know how fortunate they are to have each other.”

To learn more about the Comprehensive Cancer Support Program at UNC Lineberger and how to access its services, visit http://unclineberger.org/ccsp.  Services include mental health services (both in person and via telemedicine), the Patient and Family Resource Center, cancer genetics counseling, integrative medicine, nutrition, pastoral care, pharmacy and medication consultation, smoking cessation, supportive care, and survivorship programs and services.

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

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