Why You Need to Get the Flu Vaccine This Season

An unexpected illness could ruin holiday or travel plans before they even get off the ground. Getting your flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from this serious disease that affects millions of people every year. We collected a list of the more common questions about influenza and its vaccine.

What Is Influenza?

Influenza — more commonly known as the flu — is a widespread and potentially serious disease that can lead to hospitalization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 80,000 Americans died of the flu last year, which is the highest death toll in over a decade.

This contagious, respiratory illness is brought on by the flu virus and can show symptoms quickly. It’s important to identify the signs of flu when they appear.

Influenza symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Feverish feeling and/or chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea (more common in children)

The flu is caused by a virus, and the best way of preventing infection is an annual vaccination.  

What is the flu vaccine?

The flu vaccine is designed to prevent infection from the most common flu viruses. While it’s still possible to get the flu after receiving the vaccine, the vaccine will usually lessen the severity of flu symptoms.

The vaccine is designed to protect against the strains of flu virus likely to be most common throughout the upcoming year.The vaccine can be administered either as an injection or a nasal spray.

Who should get the flu vaccine?

The CDC recommends that anyone older than 6 months should get an annual flu vaccination. For groups determined to be at a higher risk for developing complications from the flu, it is especially important to be vaccinated.

These groups include:

  • Children aged between 6 months and 5 years
  • Adults 65 and older
  • Women who are pregnant
  • Residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • Anyone with existing medical conditions such as asthma, lung or heart disease or diabetes

Generally speaking, it’s a good idea for everyone older than 6 months to get the flu vaccine, with only a couple rare exceptions, including a severe allergy to antibiotics. If you’re concerned about an allergic reaction, consult with your doctor before getting the vaccine.

Why do I need to get a flu shot every year?

Flu viruses are constantly changing, and each year’s flu vaccine is updated to keep up with changing strains of the flu virus. Also, your body’s immune system response from vaccination weakens over time. An annual vaccine is the best way to maintain optimal protection.

Don’t wait to get the vaccine. Once you begin to experience flu symptoms, it’s too late for the vaccine to protect you. If you do get sick, chances are you will expose other people in your life to the virus, including those that may not be able to receive the vaccine, like infants or the elderly.

What’s in the flu shot?

The flu vaccine contains dead or severely weakened flu viruses that train your immune system to quickly recognize the virus and prevent an infection. Every year, the flu vaccine you receive is is different than the year before.

This is because each year, the vaccine is updated to keep up with the constant changes in the flu virus. Seasonal flu vaccines protect against the strains research indicates will be most common throughout the upcoming season.

Flu vaccines usually contain virus cells grown in eggs. If you have a severe egg allergy, consult with your doctor before getting a vaccine. Cell-based vaccines are available for those with severe egg allergies.

Can the flu vaccine give me the flu?

No, the flu vaccine is made with dead or weakened viruses that cannot cause a full flu infection. Some people do report experiencing a low grade fever, aches or redness, soreness or swelling at the site of the vaccine injection.

Side effects of the nasal spray can include running nose, wheezing, headache, vomiting, muscle aches, fever, sore throat or coughing. Side effects for both the shot and the nasal spray are mild, and most quickly subside.

Side effects of the flu shot are no fun, but you can think of it as a good sign. It shows your body needed the extra help to fight the virus and that the vaccine is working. If symptoms do persist, consult with your doctor.

What are the benefits of the flu shot?

A flu shot is the best way to protect yourself and your family from the flu this season.

  • Keep you from getting sick
  • Reduce risk of hospitalization for children and senior citizens
  • Preventive measure for individuals suffering from other chronic conditions
  • Protection during and after pregnancy
  • Protect people around you who don’t have or can’t receive the flu shot

Can I still get the flu if I get the vaccine?

It is rare, but, unfortunately, it is still possible to get the flu even if you’ve been vaccinated. There are a few reasons this can happen.

First, it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to become fully effective, so exposure before or during that time can result in a flu infection. The symptoms may be less severe in this situation, but you should still consult your doctor.

Each year’s vaccine is formulated to protect against the most common strains of the virus. If you are exposed to a less common strain, the vaccine may not be as effective in preventing infection. Although, evidence shows vaccination can reduce the severity of symptoms in these cases.

Finally, it’s possible to get a strain of the flu the vaccine is designed to protect against. Again, though, vaccination can help to lessen the severity of symptoms.

Vaccines are not 100% effective all the time, but they are the best tool we have to prevent seasonal flu. Last year, it’s estimated vaccinations prevented 5.3 million illnesses and 85,000 hospitalizations.

$25 Flu Shots on Your Schedule

Right now, stop by an IU Health Urgent Care and get a flu shot for only $25. Available to ages 9 and older. High dosage flu vaccine not part of $25 promotional offer. Visit one of our convenient Indy area locations open 7 days a week. No appointment necessary.

  • Broad Ripple
  • Brownsburg
  • Greenwood
  • Lawrence/Fort Ben
  • Noblesville
  • Plainfield

Do you have a question we didn’t answer? Reach out to jkukolla@iuhealth.org for more information. We may even add your question to the blog.

Find Urgent Care Locations Near You

Protect yourself and your family this flu season. Get your annual flu shot at any of our 10 convenient locations in Central Indiana and across the state for only $25. Shorter wait times mean you can be in and out in less than 40 minutes. Walk-in or schedule an appointment.

Find Nearest Urgent Care Location »

Want to know more about IU Health Urgent Care or need to pay your urgent care bill? Learn more here. 

Firefighter Spreads The Word – Learn The DNA, Slay Cancer

A retired fireman from California, and a patient of IU Health’s Dr. Milan Radovich has made it his mission to spread the word about the importance of gene sequencing and cancer treatment.

It was the weekend of the Indy 500 Mini Marathon when California resident Michael Balash and his wife Debbie wandered into Simon Cancer Center looking for the precision genomics wing. They didn’t know exactly what they were looking for on that Saturday afternoon, but as long as they were in Indianapolis, they decided to check out one of IU Health’s newest cancer units.

Balash, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in August 2016, still shakes his head at the chance meeting during that Mini Marathon Weekend. During his random visit to IU Health, Balash bumped into Dr. Milan Radovich, Vice President for Oncology Genomics at IU Health and a co-leader of the IU Health Precision Genomics program. The clinical program is dedicated to the integration of cutting-edge genomics – the care of patients with metastatic cancer.

That meeting resulted in a long-term commitment that spans more than 2,000 miles; long-distance consults; and additional face-to-face office visits. It extends well beyond Indiana and California. Balash has made it his mission to educate fellow firefighters about gene sequencing as an option for specialized treatment of cancer. He and his wife write about their experience and findings in a website: Cancerbeast.com. His vision is to have gene sequencing available as a standard of care for all cancer patients.

The website expands on that vision: “The gene sequencing process will lead to cancer breakthroughs – another tool in the cancer prevention and treatment toolbox. It is the future of all medical care,” they write.


Coming to IU Health is like coming home in a sense for Balash, 68. He and his wife grew up in northern Indiana – 30 miles outside of Chicago. They attended their senior prom together and graduated from East Chicago Roosevelt High School. Then they went their separate ways. Both married and had families of their own – Debbie has a daughter from her previous marriage; Michael has a son and daughter from his previous marriage.

Time went by, and another chance meeting. Debbie was working as a cardiac sonographer at a hospital where Michael’s dad was treated. When Michael’s dad passed, Debbie left her shift and, still dressed in her uniform, drove to the wake. She returned for the funeral the following day. That reunion resulted in a marriage that spans 14 years.

With ties to Indiana, they returned to Indianapolis to watch family members participate in the Mini Marathon. Michael also takes part in the annual FDIC, firefighters instructional conference – an event that brings about 34,000 firefighters to Indianapolis.


He wasn’t always a firefighter. Balash joined the Navy and was sent to California in January of 1972. He made that his new home and began work as an accountant. Some of his clients were firefighters and as he began listening to their stories of heroism, he thought that he’d like to join their ranks. So at the age of 34, he changed careers – one that he remained with for 24 years and served part of that time as an assistant chief with the Sacramento City Fire Department.

When a spot was found on his lung, Balash began researching the men and women in uniform touched by cancer. The results were astounding. According to his website one multi-year study conducted by The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) of 30,000 firefighters from San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago indicates that firefighters have a higher rate of certain types of cancer than the general population.

The name “Cancer Beast” is a direct reference to the Chicago Fire Department’s description of fire. “You have many firefighters fighting the fire beast and now you have many firefighters fighting the cancer beast,” said Balash. Together with his wife, he has visited various fire departments including Cleveland, Chicago, and Noblesville advocating for cancer awareness and training. Their campaign has taken them to The National Cancer Community Summit in Washington, D.C. and next year they will travel to Spain to speak on the topic.

So, why the interest in gene sequencing?

“I believe there will come a day when cancer is not defined by a body part, but the genes in the mutation. A tumor may start one place but then spread to other parts of the body,” said Balash. “The more we know about gene sequencing, the better prepared we can be to advocate for specialized treatment options.” 

The more they research, the more they share. Articles on cancerbeast.com include new developments such as blood-based testing to assess tumor mutation burden (TMB) that accurately identifies non-small cell lung cancer – a discovery that could lead to immunotherapy treatments. That’s hopeful news for Balash.

And even as they advocate for the care of fellow firefighters, Michael and Debbie Balash look to IU Health to help them navigate Michael’s treatment options.

“When our oncologist back home suggests a treatment option, we will call back here for advice and opinions,” said Debbie. “They are amazing here. They have what we need to stay on top of the latest clinical trials and recommendations. We are in good hands.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Nurse Takes On The Sexual Assault Beast

IU Health Arnett Hospital nurse Megan Shupe takes sexual assault personally. That’s why she’s working diligently to implement a forensic nursing program focused on specialized care for victims.

She stands at just over four feet tall. But Megan Shupe’s passion for her cause can overpower the most influential audiences in her presence.

Fire fighters, prosecutors, police officers, paramedics, nurses, and doctors – they’ve all witnessed Shupe’s plea. It isn’t a plea for all emergency room patients; it’s a plea for those who come in bruised and battered – the victims of abuse and assault. For months she’s been canvasing Lafayette, Tippecanoe County and beyond, gathering support and resources for her cause. She’s also been doing a whole lot of educating.

“There is not a sexual assault response team in Tippecanoe County – no group that comes together to provide support for victims,” said Shupe, who sat in on two rape trials and a mock trial orchestrated by the prosecutor’s office to help her learn more about the needs of victims and the support in place at the court level. “I start by telling people ‘you may not be the first person to come into contact with a victim but you are likely the one they will remember. Keep an open mind. Don’t give them an eye roll when they tell you their story. A person who has suffered trauma may not behave the way you behave but it doesn’t mean their story is false.’”


Sadly, Shupe knows about those stories intimately.

“For me, my story happened years ago during childhood but I remember thinking at that time ‘if one person would have reached out to help me how much different that situation would have been.’ The resources weren’t available, so I’m committed to making sure every patient who comes to this hospital gets the very best support we have to offer,” said Shupe.

For 12 years, she watched helplessly as her single mom struggled in a relationship with a man who changed from the nicest person she’d ever met to what Shupe calls “a monster.”  The physical and sexual abuse were both reasons to leave and reasons to stay.

“I watched her struggle through ‘how can I leave?’ and ‘how can I afford to stay?’ A lot of people stay in the situation because they don’t know how to get out. They take their kids down that path with them because they are scared and they don’t know any other way,” said Shupe.


The sexual assault picture is big and scary – like a beast. But Shupe is focusing on each piece as if it is her only patient.

To help her with her efforts the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute recently awarded a two-year grant to develop and strengthen care, education and outreach to victims of assault through the Victims of Crime Act, Federal Assistance Fund. Specifically, Shupe is heading up the West Central Region’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program. The program will be headquartered at Arnett but will also serve surrounding areas including IU Health White Memorial, and Frankfort hospitals. She has also met with leaders in nearby Clinton County. She estimates there are 400 sexual assaults a year in the Lafayette area including the Purdue University campus.

“Since July, I’ve really hit the ground running, knocking down barriers to get the program in place,” said Shupe. What does that look like for IU Health Arnett Hospital?

“Now when someone comes in and they’ve been sexually abused they are basically treated like any other ER patient,” said Shupe. “They sit in a waiting room and don’t have a private place to go. After they wait for the medical clearance, they are told we don’t offer those exams and they are referred to another hospital. The other hospital is so overwhelmed that they have to turn patients away. If it’s sexual assault, you have a traumatized patient who has worked up the courage to come in and there is also a window of opportunity to collect evidence. We can’t afford to lose time.”

By mid-November, Shupe hopes that will be completely transformed. With the backing of Brian Weinrich, Chief of Nursing, and Brad Jordan, Director of Emergency Room and Trauma Services, Shupe’s plan has been unanimously supported by the hospital’s executive leadership team. That plan includes two emergency rooms – one will be with a single entry point to protect the victim from the public eye. The first room will be designed more like a home setting with furniture rather than medical equipment. That area will serve as a consult room to collect patient information. The second room will serve as an exam room that will include a private shower.

Patient care will begin with a medical legal examination that includes an interview where the patient recalls as much detail as possible from the incident and the perpetrator.  The interview is followed by a thorough exam that includes body mapping and swabbing, identifying lacerations, bruises and areas that may provide forensic evidence – such as particles of skin from beneath the fingernails, a possible sign of the victim scratching the perpetrator during defense. A special camera has been ordered to photograph the victim’s injuries.


Thirteen nurses will be trained in forensic nursing and will rotate through an “on call” schedule. “I think everybody has a story – something that led them down a path. I can’t speak for every nurse in forensics, but at some point if you are willing to make the sacrifices involved in this level of patient care, you almost have to have a personal experience, a passion for the victims,” said Shupe. She started her career in ER medicine in a small critical access hospital where she first learned about forensic nursing. She completed the training and joined IU Health in 2011 working in ER. She will continue splitting her time between administrative duties for the SANE program, and bedside care.

“My goal is to get them while they are here. Whether they are a victim of sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, stabbings, gunshot wounds, elder abuse -– anything where emergency medicine brushes with the legal system – I want us to be available to handle those situations,” said Shupe. “When we say we offer patient support we want the entire community to recognize what resources are needed and what resources exist. When we discharge a patient we want to send them out with everything available from access to 24-hour hotlines, to legal aid, to victim advocacy and safe shelters. It’s the only way to help them.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Hiding Scars, Hides Reminders Of Breast Cancer

Patients diagnosed with breast cancer have plenty of reminders of the treatment and healing. Hiding the scar of surgery is one way to mask the reminder.

She missed one year of having her regular mammogram and it turns out it was a significant year to miss. In February Dinah Duvall was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“They found a tumor in my left breast.  I started my treatment at another hospital and that surgeon estimated the size of the tumor was 3.5 millimeters. An MRI followed and the tumor was much larger. It was a scary time,” said Duvall, who was referred to an oncologist. Chemotherapy followed. Then she started reading and second guessing her treatment. She lacked confidence in her providers.

“I didn’t ask for advice; I didn’t talk about it until it was apparent because I was bald. Then friends recommended I get a second opinion,” said Duvall. Everything changed the first time she met IU Health oncologists Dr. Anna Maria Storniolo and Dr. Carla Fisher. Something just clicked with her new providers. She felt comfortable.  

“I was going into a third round of chemo, already tired and already losing my hair and Dr. Storniolo told me that it wasn’t necessary. I was so relieved,” said Duvall, who had a partial mastectomy.  She was also relieved after meeting with Dr. Fisher and learning about a technique that concealed the incision around her nipple.

In a Hidden Scar procedure, a surgeon places the incisions in a location that is hard to see, so that the scar is not visible when the incision heals. The result is little to no visible reminder of the cancer. The Hidden Scar approach can be performed for a nipple sparing mastectomy or a lumpectomy procedure.

“My personal experience is patients are resilient and are happy with most of the outcomes. To hide a scar makes a difficult journey easier,” said Dr. Fisher, who frequently performs the hidden scar and nipple sparing. “It’s important to work with a great team of plastic surgeons to get the best results. We have that here,” said Dr. Fisher.

For Duvall, married with three adult children, the outcome couldn’t have been more satisfying.

“I go to the Y to work out and the last thing you want when you are in the shower is for someone to see a scar,” said Duvall, who turns 70 next month. “I’m not a terribly vain person but I’d prefer not to have outward signs of that cancer – whether it’s something people question or wonder – there are better things to talk about in life.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Breast Cancer Patient “Football May Have Saved My Life”

A 40-year-old breast cancer patient was persuaded to perform a self-exam while watching an NFL game that promoted Breast Cancer Awareness.

She’s always been an avid football fan. And now, at the age of 40, Nicole Biberstine is an even bigger fan.

She was sitting in her living room on a typical fall day last October, taking in an NFL game. She doesn’t remember who was dominating on the field, but she does remember the overall color on the screen – pink.

“It sounds so cliché but I was just watching the game and seeing all the pink ribbons and promotion for breast cancer awareness when I decided I should do a self-exam,” said Biberstine. She felt a lump at the top of her left breast but thought it might have been a result of breast feeding her youngest, a son, who just turned two. She also has a daughter, five.

Biberstine met her husband Mike, a former Marian County prosecutor, after she was rear-ended by a drunk driver. She made a few court appearances and the two began dating months later. They have been married for eight years.

Before she became a stay-at-home mom, Biberstine worked in fundraising for Make-a-Wish and Zeta Tau Alpha Sorority. As part of the sorority’s philanthropic efforts, Biberstine helped pass out pink ribbons at the Colts games.

“It’s all come full circle – kind of like a bad Lifetime movie,” said Biberstine, a patient of Dr. Bryan Schneider. Until she found the lump, Biberstine had not had a mammogram because she said she wasn’t yet 40 and – the youngest of six children –  there had been no family history. She was diagnosed at Stage 3C.

“I was completely in shock. I went by myself for a mammogram and ultra sound because I honestly thought it was a blocked milk duct,” said Biberstine. She has undergone chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, reconstruction and radiation.

“I have Her2+ breast cancer so it’s aggressive but responds well to the chemotherapy. If I were to give a message to other women it would be to be your own advocate,” said Biberstine. “It’s never too early to start checking your own body and listen to your own body signs. No one else will do it for you. Even though you can get immune and annoyed by the pink in October it serves a purpose and I’m an example of it. If I hadn’t done an exam and waited for a mammogram what would it be like 6-9 months down the road?”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Knitting Through Breast Cancer

When Suzette Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer, she whiled away the hours of chemotherapy knitting hats. She now has more than 150 hats that she hopes to pass on to other cancer patients.

When she showed up at the registration table volunteers asked Suzette Brown if she was a survivor. She was taking part in one of her many volunteer activities – the 2105 “Making Strides for Breast Cancer Walk.” Survivors receive special recognition at the annual walk.

But at this walk, Brown accompanied by her husband Derek, was not a survivor.

“I wasn’t diagnosed but I was waiting on answers. Somewhere in the back of my mind I felt like I might be one of those survivors some day,” said Brown. Two years earlier she had discovered a lump on her right breast.  She went for a mammogram and received a diagnosis of a cyst.

“I did what I thought I was suppose to do – report a change in the breast and get it checked by a mammogram.  Life went on,” said Brown.    

And life was busy. She was an adult college student, studying nursing. She and Derek were high school sweethearts at Pendleton Heights. They were married six months out of high school and had three daughters. Brown worked as an office administrator for 25 years and then started taking college classes hoping to work as a hospice nurse. Throughout her life she was always helping with one project or another – class parent roles and committees, 4-H clubs, Girl Scouts, children and adult outreach church ministry, JR girls camp counselor, leadership boards, mission trips, contact HELP crisis call center – it was who she was.

But as time went on, the cyst on her breast began to change and Brown became concerned. She consulted her sister – Sondra Jones, a nurse with IU Health who encouraged Brown to go in for another mammogram.

“It was beginning to dimple. It just wouldn’t go away and I felt like there was something more there. I was somewhat in denial but knew I had to find out,” said Brown, 52. 

She got the results over the phone. Her husband’s father had just passed away and they were in the middle of working on his house. She was 49 and she had breast cancer.

“My husband drove in the driveway and asked what the doctor said. I said ‘I have breast cancer,’ and then I went back to work. I didn’t have time for this. Our youngest was starting college, we were empty nesting, we were in a good place,” said Brown.

Just before she started treatment, her family arranged a photo shoot for Brown, her husband, her mother, three daughters and granddaughter. One photo has Brown posed with pink boxing gloves.

“I had no idea at that point what I was in for. I thought I’d just get treatment and go on with my life,” said Brown. Six months later the same photo was taken and Brown was bald. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were gone and she was more than 20 pounds heavier. Before the diagnosis she was healthy – walking five miles a day. During treatment, she was so tired she used a golf cart to drive around the family’s rural Henry County property.

“When I was diagnosed I was angry. I was annoyed because I work hard to stay healthy.  I was too busy to deal with this. I was meeting myself coming and going. If someone had asked me if I could do something I’d say it would have to be between two or three in the morning. I was just always on the go and it was my ‘before cancer normal’ – helping others, and enjoying time with my family, working, college, and investing in my health, and then I got the diagnosis of cancer.”

It was her sister Sondra Jones who told her that cancer slowed her down. “They first thought it was Stage I or II but after the mastectomy they diagnosed it was Stage III,” said Brown. She had 27 lymph nodes removed from her right arm. The cancer was also found in the lymph nodes.

She went through six and a half months of chemotherapy and under the care of IU Health Ball Hospital’s Dr. Yunjie X. Lin, she had 34 rounds of radiation.  Six months later, in March of 2017 she went through a 14-hour reconstructive surgery. After her mastectomy she was diagnosed with Lymphedema – swelling in her right arm, chest area and legs caused by the removal of the lymph nodes.

Other surgeries followed in July, October and December 2017. And another in May – all to repair damage caused to Brown’s body from the breast cancer diagnosis and the reconstruction involving Lymphedema – in her chest wall, her abdomen, her back, and her trunk. She now uses a pneumatic compression device (lymphedema pump) to help manage the Lymphedema 68 minutes a day.  

“It’s basically like a traffic jam in my system and the pump is redirecting the traffic,” said Brown.

It was when she was going through her chemotherapy and the after effects that she began to knit hats. Holding the soft yarn in her hands and looping the fiber onto a round loom gave her a purpose and kept her busy – a different kind of busy unlike any of the other projects she had managed throughout marriage and motherhood.

“I would often sit out back on the swing and just look out at the cornfields and knit,” said Brown. The family’s 120-year-old homestead sits on five acres. Watching the hummingbirds, and enjoying nature and the simple things in life like resting in the sunshine and breathing in the country air became an integral part of her healing. And while she rested, she knitted. And then she knitted some more. Two years later, she has a box filled with 150 hats – in a rainbow of colors.

The knitting loom was a gift from her sister and the hats – although finished are awaiting a final tie off of their ends. Brown says her sister will help her finish each one, cutting the strings this fall.  She wants to add gift cards and a positive note and then give them away to other patients.

“For a long time I didn’t want to give them up because they were symbolic of my journey – every hat is part of that journey,” said Brown. “Now I’m ready to cut the ends and give them away. I’m in a good place.”

And she’s back at it again – volunteering and helping others but this time she’s using her personal experience – her fight with breast cancer – to serve by encouraging others and sharing her story about early detection, creating awareness, and supporting others on their journey.    

After driving many miles several times to Indianapolis to share in a cancer support group, Brown started one closer to home. She has about 26 women who have attended the twice-monthly meetings at the Daleville Community Library. “Once Upon a Cure” is for women newly diagnosed with cancer, women going through treatment for cancer, and women who have survived cancer. Each woman has her own personal story to share about her journey and diagnosis.

They come together to tell their stories, ask questions, form new friendships and . . . yes, to learn to knit.  

“We have a code word and it’s ‘blink,’” said Brown. “I often send a simple one word text with the word “BLINK” to a cancer survivor which means ‘when you look back at the timeline of your life, this will just be a blink of your eye.   Keep blinking.’” 

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

Video Gaming Leads To Kidney Donation

A single kidney forever connects two online video gamers.

Their gamertags are “NovaSpartan06” and “FlecherdsNasty.” They knew little about each other outside their virtual world – other than they both liked playing video games. That is until FlecherdsNasty, or Robert “Trace” Phillips learned  NovaSpartan06 or Davide Lewis needed a kidney donor.

At that time, Phillips was living in Seattle – about 2,300 miles away from Lewis’ Indiana home of Clarksville. Phillips, 25, was born and raised in Southern California and recently moved back with his wife of five years. After high school he enlisted in the Marines for four years and then transitioned to Microsoft where he’s worked as a Premier Field Engineer for the past two years. It’s a job that involves a lot of travel.

“I’ve been playing video games since I was old enough to hold a controller and playing online since I was 12,” said Phillips. “With the nature of my job – traveling a lot – it’s sometimes easier to have online friendships than in person.”

Lewis is one of Phillips’ consistent game partners. A graduate of Jeffersonville High School, Lewis was in the sixth grade when he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy. Also know as Berger’s disease or synpharyngitic, the kidney disease results when an antibody (immunoglobulin) becomes lodged in the kidney. IgA deposits build up and damage the kidney tissues. According to the National Kidney Disease Foundation the causes for IgA are not clearly known but it can result from an outside irritation such as a virus. According to Foundation statistics, there are more than 3,000 new patients awaiting kidney transplants each month. Every 14 minutes someone new is added to the transplant waiting list.

On February 28, 2018, Lewis, 24, became a recipient of Phillips’ kidney. IU Health’s Dr. William C. Goggins was his surgeon. He remains in the care of Dr. Muhammad S. Yaqub, a nephrologist with IU Health.

Over the years, the two men found they had more in common than gaming. While Phillips enlisted in the Marines, Lewis was active in the ROTC. Like Phillips, Lewis took computer classes in hardware and software. And like Phillips, Lewis has been married to his wife April for five years. The couple has one daughter Addison, 4 and a second child on the way.

The two men met face-to-face through a mutual friend and Phillips decided to pay Lewis a visit – traveling across country. He spent a week with his friend and a couple days after returning home, he decided he wanted to donate his kidney to Lewis.

“We actually joked about his kidney failure a lot, and I didn’t actually even think about donating until he brought up his blood type randomly in conversation,” said Phillips. “That’s sort of when it clicked for me. I know that O- is a one-way street and so I asked about the whole donation process and what would be involved for a donor.” Things clicked from there.

“To me it wasn’t about why I should – there are plenty of reasons to donate. I didn’t see a single reason why I wouldn’t donate a kidney,” said Phillips. “My life has been exceptionally blessed and honestly I feel grateful having an opportunity to give to another and spread the love. Davide has a beautiful family and I know that if I was in his shoes I’d hope to be given the same generosity, and I’m just happy that he can live life to its fullest.”

For Lewis, life has been a whole lot better since the transplant. He’s gotten a job as a meat cutter for Sam’s Club – a better job than he had before. He enjoys hanging out with his wife, daughter and his sister Cassandra and yes; he still enjoys playing video games. He’d eventually like to get into video streaming.

“I can’t thank Trace enough for what he did for me,” said Lewis. “I’ve had a lot of support from family during my kidney failure and it’s just great to finally make it through the transplant and feel good again.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.

California Transplant Patient: “I Didn’t Want To Put My Life On Hold”

When Brandon Facon learned the wait time for a liver transplant in California was nearly three years, he and his family began making plans to come to IU Health.

Twice Brandon Facon has left his life in California and traveled to Indiana where he has sought medical help from what he considers the best transplant team the world over. The first time was in 2012. The second time was just a few weeks ago.

At the age of nine, Facon, who just turned 24, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis. The progressive disease of the liver slowly destroys the bile ducts in the liver. With damaged bile ducts, the gallbladder causes inflammation and scaring of the bile ducts. At the time of his diagnosis doctors told him he’d probably need a liver transplant within eight years. It wasn’t something his parents talked with him a lot about.

“At the age of nine, I didn’t want him constantly wondering when the ball would drop. I wanted him to be a kid,” said his mom Anne Facon. Brandon knew he had stomach issues and had been diagnosed with colitis. He got involved with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.

Eight years came.

Brandon was in his senior year of high school trying to make the most of that milestone year. But it wasn’t easy.  On February 1st he wrote: “Already missed the first two periods of my last semester of high school. This should be fun.”

At its worst the disease causes abdominal pain, swelling of the spleen, muscle and joint pain, fatty deposits on the skin, yellowing of the eyes and skin, diarrhea and weight loss.

When he was trying to be a regular teen – free from the disease that slowed him down – he played video games, and some non-contact sports with friends – mainly golf and soccer. “I wasn’t fast enough to play lacrosse and I was too small to play football,” said Facon, who typically weighs about 130 pounds and stands 5’6.”

He found his talent early on in photography and design and worked with the yearbook staff. But always in the back of his mind was the transplant. He knew he needed one.

It was at a support group for people affected by biliary cholangitis that he met a man who had come to IU Health for his transplant.  The disease typically occurs in older people between the ages of 30 and 60.

“He said ‘I had your disease and I moved to Indiana and I got transplant in two months as opposed to two years,’” Facon related. “So we went home and checked our options and read about University Hospital and how it’s a hospital of excellence. We came back and I got my first transplant in two months.” That was August 10, 2012.

“He really wanted to walk at graduation so he graduated and we left for Indiana the next day,” said Anne Facon. In addition to Brandon, Michael and Anne Facon have a daughter Danielle, a year older than Brandon.

Following surgery Brandon showed pictures of his scar on his Facebook page and wrote: “Never would I have thought my life would be like this but I honestly wouldn’t want it to be any other way.” One year after his transplant he said he felt the healthiest he’d ever felt. He has spoken publicly about his transplant and his disease, and encourages others to consider organ donation.

The transplant kept him at that healthy stage for five years.

After a year’s deferment, he started classes at California Polytechnic State University. Initially he thought he’d study industrial engineering but after an introductory class, he switched to mechanical engineering. During his sophomore year he got a job in the photography studio of the art department. Eventually he spent more time in the art department working as the main technician. Part of his interest in photography has always been how the camera works. He admits to being more comfortable behind the lens than in the picture.

For three years, things were good and then there were bad days.

“I got into a cycle that at the beginning of the quarter I was feeling good and by the end I was sick. Being in college, it’s easy to pick up germs. It’s hard for college students to understand that if they’re sick they shouldn’t go to class, so I was exposed to a lot of germs,” said Facon. Because primary biliary cholangitis is an autoimmune disease, stress can trigger and heighten the symptoms.

“Five years of college took a toll on my liver and the disease returned. I didn’t want to put my life on hold after college so I said let’s do this,” said Facon. “It was comfortable back here. We met people the first time, we were more familiar with the state, and we knew the team.”

Brandon and his mom drove 10 hours a day for four days back to Indiana. “He had been sleeping about 20 hours a day at this point and it continued on the trip out here. We’d stop at thrift stores along the way to look for camera equipment,” said his mom, who didn’t leave his hospital room during the stay.  On September 6th Facon received his second liver transplant – performed by the same surgeon he had in 2012 – Dr. Richard S. Mangus.

His goal is to be back in California by Thanksgiving. “We’d like to get him in an environment where he isn’t depleted by germs and can thrive,” said Anne Facon.

Facon is anxious to complete his senior project focusing on designing camera equipment.

“My photography teacher told me I should start turning the camera on myself and document my story,” said Facon. “But for right now, I just want to get a job and live life in my 20s.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes

Breast Cancer – A Plan For Prevention

IU Health offers an ongoing plan for women who are at a risk for breast cancer.

Maybe they have a family history, or they have had “watch spots” in the past. There are a variety of reasons that some women may need close monitoring for breast cancer. For Jennifer Harley it was a particular cell pattern that showed up on a biopsy that was done because of changes in her mammogram.

Harley has been a nurse at IU Health since 1985 so she knows how important it is to pay attention to all the signs. When it came to her own health, she wasn’t going to ignore valuable information. In her mind, it meant early detection, early intervention.

The cell pattern suggested something unusual so Harley was referred for a biopsy.

“The biopsy wasn’t malignant but it showed a cell pattern that put me in a high risk group for breast cancer,” said Harley. “The likelihood of diagnosis goes up more than the average person so they recommended intervention.” That was in 2015.

Since then she has been part of a prevention program that is similar to someone who had breast cancer and is five-years post treatment. Working closely with IU Health nurse practitioner Sarah Bennett she receives an estrogen suppressant, and mammograms every six months, followed by an MRI.

“They are keeping an eye, watching for tumor development,” said Harley. “They talk to me about what research has shown and why it’s important to do more than just watch. It’s not even considered precancerous, it’s just that we have experts here that can determine the risk factors based on the cell pattern,” said Harely, who spent 25 years of her career working in oncology at Riley Hospital. 

“A lot of what you can’t prevent in pediatric cancer, you can in adults – stay out of the sun, stop smoking, lose weight. I see this as one more opportunity to prevent a diagnosis of breast cancer,” said Harley. “It gives me a peace of mind and it is encouraging to know there’s a treatment plan in place and we are the kind of center that can provide that for our patients.”

The prevention program is part of an overall treatment plan that begins at the point of the breast screening. It can include consulting on diet and weight loss, genetic counseling and ongoing evaluation of blood markers – all part of a program that helps women take an active role in their health care and reduce their risks.

Harley has three sisters and even though there is no history of breast cancer in her family, she said it was helpful to be able to share the prevention plant with her siblings.

More about Harley:

  • Her mother was a nurse so she had an early interest in pursuing nursing. She completed her undergraduate degree at Ball State University and her Masters degree from the University of Kentucky.
  • What she likes best about being a nurse educator: “The opportunity to both encourage new nurses, help them be successful, and to help ensure best practices which makes for best patient care.”
  • Outside the hospital: Harley is involved with orphan ministry. She has traveled to Russia and also helps locally through her church.

 — T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

Best Friends, Police Dispatchers United by Breast Cancer

Two friends who are also co-workers share something else in common – they are both breast cancer survivors.

There have been girls’ trips to Vegas; weekends browsing at garage sales; and lots of shared family birthday parties. Michelle Coy and Traci Cox have enjoyed many years of friendship. They’ve also shared something else – both were diagnosed with breast cancer.

It was July 21, 2008 when Cox received her diagnosis. She had been feeling some pain in her armpit and went to the doctor for a check up. First there was a mammogram and then a biopsy that confirmed breast cancer. Under the care of IU Health hematologist/oncologist Dr. Danielle Doyle, Cox went through treatments that included chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy. She was 40.

“I had 35 lymph nodes removed and cancer was in 33 of them. They guessed I’d been walking around with it for a while. I was lucky it was slow growing,” said Cox. She met Coy when she became a dispatcher for the Johnson County Public Safety 911. Their friendship has continued for more than two decades. When Cox was diagnosed, Coy made phone calls to family and friends and helped organize fundraisers with co-workers.

“Her face was one of the last I saw when I rolled into surgery,” said Cox. 

In October 2016, Cox was there when her friend received the same news. Coy had gone for a wellness exam when a lump was detected. She was 52. Sixteen weeks of chemotherapy and eight weeks of radiation followed.

Cox gave her friend a t-shirt that read: “Cancer, You’ve Picked the Wrong Girl.” More than anything Cox was there for her. She knew what she was going through.

“Traci was my rock because I knew she’d gone through a horrible time,” said Coy. “I often went to her with questions about medication or concerns like when I was so tired.” Cox’s response to her friend was: “You’ll be fine.”

Both women graduated from Franklin High School; their daughters were born two weeks apart; and they’ve celebrated weddings and birthdays together. They both started working as dispatchers for Johnson County Public Safety within a few years of each other.

“We’re here doing this job, responding to calls because we like to help people and we like to make a difference,” said Coy. “I was in shock when I got the news and I’m glad I had Traci to help me through – she made a difference.”

— By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. 
   Reach Banes via email at
 T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.