Her family is her life

A quilted blanket keeps her warm as Pamela Gerow sits through one of her regular infusions. Right by her side is her youngest son Mitchell. He wears a t-shirt with the message “Mom: Mind over Matter.

The t-shirt is the inspiration of Dallas Cowboy’s quarterback Dak Prescott who started the “Faith Fight Finish Foundation,” in honor of his mother Peggy who died of cancer. Prescott has made it his mission to continue spreading his mom’s message “do the best with the cards you’re dealt and make adversity your inspiration.”

Like Prescott, Mitchell Gerow admires his mother’s strength and unwavering support of her family.

The blanket on her lap is a small indication of her treasures – each patch represents the college where her children earned their degrees – two from Ball State, one from IU, and one from Albion College in Michigan. In addition to Mitchell, Gerow is the mother to Valerie Hatcher, Ashleigh Hubley, and Thomas Gerow. It was friends of Thomas Gerow, a teacher, who sewed the blanket for Pamela. She also has one granddaughter.

“My kids are my life,” said Gerow, who formerly worked in sales for hotel amenities. Her other love is her rescue dog – a white German Shepherd mix named “Simon.”

It was Mitchell she called when she began having excruciating pain on her right side. She thought it was appendicitis but after a day in ER she was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She was given about three to six months to live. They were unsettled by the prognosis and switched to IU Health where she is in the care of oncologist Dr. Safi Shahda.

“IU has been amazing, absolutely amazing,” said Gerow. “It doesn’t matter if I’ve been assigned to a particular nurse – every nurse is helpful and friendly. From the people at the front desk to the people who check you out, everyone is so kind.”

Just six weeks after her September diagnosis Gerow’s family surprised her with a special 59th birthday party.

“I always said I wanted to have a blow out party for my 60th and it came a year early,” said Gerow. “They ordered a ‘rent the runway dress,’ reserved a special venue, hired a guitar player, ordered up some amazing food, and each child shared a special sentiment. There were tears and there was laughter. It was a night to remember because I was with my family.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

His fight is our fight

Parker Runyon was married in October. He became a father in January. The same month he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

On Monday, April 15, he celebrated with the team at IU Health White Memorial. There were donuts, balloons and cards. It is a day that will stay with Parker the rest of his life. It was his last day of chemotherapy.

Parker Runyon, or Burnettsville, presented at the IU Health White Memorial emergency room in January with back pain and testicular pain. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had surgery almost immediately at IU Health Arnett Hospital. It was going to take a couple of weeks to get his chemo regimen going at IU Health Arnett Cancer Center in Lafayette. It is a complex regimen. Parker was in a lot of pain do to the size of his tumor and preferred to get it started as soon as possible. Calls were made and he was able to start his chemo treatments right away, close to home at IU Health White Memorial.

Parker’s chemo regimen was several hours long every day for a week, then he would return on the following two Mondays for treatment. He repeated this cycle three times – that is three months of chemo. “I am glad I could have the treatments done so close to home. It is not fun to make an hour drive when you are feeling awful,” stated Parker. “Heidi and Marlene have taken very good care of me right here.”

Parker is in the prime of his life. He is 26, newly married with a new baby. “They are such a sweet family. You could tell they were so sleep deprived. Parker would be in one recliner, receiving treatment, sound asleep. His wife would be in the other recliner fast asleep with the baby laying on her,” remarked Heidi Jordan, chemo nurse.

The staff at IU Health White Memorial fell in love with the young family, going to fundraising events and buying t-shirts in support of Parker. Everyone in the community seems to know Parker and has simply wrapped their arms around him. The team at IU Health White Memorial bought fundraising t-shirts that say, “His fight is my fight.” It’s true says Jordan, “We are fighting for him.”

“This has been a real team effort and I am so thankful for the team at IU Health Arnett and White Memorial. They made me feel like family. So today, I brought in donuts,” shared Parker Runyon.

It’s what we do Parker, deliver on our promise to provide the best care, designed for you. You will always be a part of our family.

What’s next for Parker? He plans on enjoying married life and fatherhood. He is working on regaining his strength and hopefully his beard. He had a beard for ten years prior to chemo. He plans to return to work at Ball Corp the first part of May even if only part-time.

IU Health Frankfort Hospital opens new sleep lab

Those who have trouble sleeping and suffer from daytime sleepiness now have a way to find answers. Indiana University Health Frankfort Hospital is pleased to announce the grand opening of a Sleep Lab at 1300 S. Jackson Street, Frankfort.

One-third of Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. The quality of your sleep can harm your health long-term. A potentially serious sleep disorder is sleep apnea in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, you might have sleep apnea.

“What some people think of as an average night’s sleep and daytime sleepiness can actually be a condition with major health consequences,” explains Kareena Wells, RRT, cardiopulmonary and sleep lab manager. “If untreated, sleep disorders can result in heart disease, type 2 diabetes, weight gain and stroke.”

Sleep disorders often go untreated because the conditions are difficult to diagnose in a traditional visit at a provider’s office. The new Sleep Lab study can help solve this problem. The treatment of a sleep disorder can mean a drastic improvement in the quality of life.

“Opening the new Sleep Lab in Frankfort brings an important service to our community at a convenient location,” shares Kelly Braverman, president of IU Health Frankfort Hospital. “Sleep disorders are more common – and more dangerous – than people realize.”

At the Sleep Lab, special monitors measure brain waves, heart rate, leg and arm movements, breathing and oxygen levels. Set up like a nice, private hotel room, patients sleep like they usually do but with special sensors to monitor the body. The Sleep Lab rooms are designed to provide patients the utmost in comfort and privacy during their stay. A sleep medicine physician analyzes the information gathered during the sleep study to determine if the patient has a sleep disorder.

Wells encourages those experiencing loud snoring, trouble falling asleep, pausing during sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, awakening with a dry mouth, morning headaches and other sleep disorder symptoms to talk to their primary care provider, who can initiate a sleep study. Common sleep disorders include obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, sleepwalking and insomnia.

“Treatment can make an incredible difference in your energy and ability to enjoy your day,” Wells says.

Individualized treatment plans may include changes in diet and exercise, education on sleep hygiene or a breathing machine like a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device.

Nurse gives hope to the hurting

ER Nurse Nicole Perkins has completed 160 sexual assault exams in the past seven years. It’s a number she doesn’t take lightly.

In the middle of a bustling emergency department at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital is a small, sterile room recognized as a safe place for the most vulnerable patients.  The Center of Hope is a unit staffed around-the-clock with forensic nurse examiners. At the helm of that haven is Nicole Perkins.

Perkins joined IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital in 2003 and a year later joined the Emergency Department as a technician. It was in that role where she first witnessed the urgency in caring for victims of domestic violence and assault.

“I saw victims of assault come in and wait.  There weren’t people who were specially trained to do the exams,” said Perkins. She became an ER nurse in 2009 and became a forensic nurse examiner three years later, joining the Center of Hope. Since 2014 she has served as the Center’s shift coordinator, working with six forensic nurse examiners – all specially trained to care for patients who have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, human trafficking, or trauma. Last year the Center of Hope reported 1,000 cases of neglect, assault, abuse, and violence to both adults and children. One of the highest numbers was adult physical assault followed by child neglect.

“My mom was a nurse and I always saw how she cared for people and how she was so selfless,” said Perkins. The decision to become a forensic nurse was a specialization and also fulfilled a need.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to educate communities about how to prevent sexual assault. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. One in three women and one in six men experience some sort of sexual contact violence in their lives. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Twenty to 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college. Every 98 seconds someone in the US is sexually assaulted.

When a patient seeks help in ER, they are escorted to the private exam room where Perkins or another forensic nurse performs a head to toe assessment. The process can take anywhere from three to six hours.

“I introduce myself and assure them they are in a safe place,” said Perkins. “We stabilize their medical problems and then tailor the exam to meet their needs.” That may mean giving them time to cry, to sleep, or process the trauma. Part of the exam includes collecting evidence – under the nails, in their hair, and on their skin. Special glasses and a flashlight illuminate substances on the body, and a blue dye can be used to highlight cuts and abrasions. All injuries are photographed, samples are sealed, and the victim’s clothes are bagged for evidence. All patients are given a fresh set of clothing provided by the Assistance League of Indianapolis. They are also educated about and if they choose, given medicine for sexually transmitted diseases and the morning after pill. Each patient receives an “Application for Benefits From Sex Crime Victim Service Fund,” provided by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, and additional information on community resources.  

Not all victims come through the ER. Some come from the rape crisis center and some come from law enforcement agencies. 

Of the 160 sexual assault exams she has conducted, Perkins has only appeared in court about three times. But in any given day Perkins’ work extends beyond the walls of the Emergency Department.

“I think one of the biggest improvements over the years has been with our community collaboration,” said Perkins. A large part of that involves communication with various police agencies including the local, state, city and on the Ball State campus. She works closely with the Delaware County Sexual Assault Response Team, Child Protection Team, and Human Trafficking Committee. Perkins has served on various panel discussions and professional presentations focusing on human trafficking, caring for sexual assault/abuse survivors, and law enforcement education.

“The most important thing is to see an impact on the patients,” said Perkins. “They come in tearful, upset nervous and I’m able to help guide them through the process and calm them down and then provide them with all the resources they need. We’re the patient advocates. I don’t have to determine if a crime happened. I’m just here to believe them and love on them. We collect evidence in the event a case goes to court.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

Two mothers dropped nearly 200 pounds

Two IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital employees talk about what it’s like to be working moms and achieve their goals of weight loss.

As the elevator doors open, Diamond Shearer looks inside and sees four other passengers. Then she steps inside.

“There’s a weight limit of 3500 pounds so I’m doing a quick calculation and dividing numbers to see if we’re going to reach that limit. That’s what big girls do,” said Shearer. She’s laughing as she invites additional passengers to join the ride up three floors.

“There’s room. We have room for more,” she says. “I used to worry about that kind of thing but not so much now.”

Shearer, who works as a sterile processing technician, has been with IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital for 15 years. On Oct. 15 2018 she had gastric sleeve surgery at IU Health Ball Memorial Bariatric & Medical Weight Loss Center. A co-worker Nichol Faris, a supervisor in food and nutrition at IU Health Ball had the same procedure in Sept. 24, 2018. They were both under the care of Dr. Michael Thorpe.

In the gastric sleeve procedure, recommended for people who have a body mass index of at least 40, surgeons remove a portion of the stomach and join together the remaining portions to make a new banana-sized stomach or sleeve. The smaller sack (about 1/10 the size of the original stomach) makes patients fill full more quickly.

The process leading up the surgery involves about six months of nutritional, psychological and exercise counseling. Every patient must complete specific steps to prepare for surgery – including weight loss.

Shearer, the mother of 14-year-old triplets, began her journey weighing at 399.7. She is now down 93.5 pounds. Faris began her journey at 364 pounds and is now down 88 pounds. Her birthday is May 1 and she hopes to be down by 100 pounds then.

Although their surgeries are the same, their stories are very different.

Shearer first heard the term “thunder thighs” when she started school. She said she was always a heavy girl but was also known as the pretty face ‘church girl.’

“I never thought I was fat. Through my eyes I’m the most gorgeous thing in the world. I had a lot of friends who didn’t think I was fat. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. I didn’t think I was a big girl. It was just me. I was Diamond. It’s the way God made you,” said Shearer. But when her weight began to impact her lifestyle, she decided she needed to work toward change.

“I am a worship leader at my church. Standing and singing at church was also becoming a task. I found myself not able to worship freely and sing at the same time. So yeah I decided to make a change. I told Jesus I needed his help,” said Shearer. “I wanted to freely worship and not be physically hindering myself. That was it. I met with my primary doctor and she told me about the bariatric surgery and Jesus was there helping me the whole time – never leaving my side.”

Faris, the single mother of two teens, said her whole life has been about feeling like the “big girl.” As the middle child, she said she was in the shadow of two siblings who were considered fit. Her weight was often talked about at home and by the age of eight her parents started her on one of the “clinically-proven fad diets.” She remembers going to her aunt’s home and seeing her picture hung up and vowing to never have her picture taken again.  

The struggle continued into adulthood and she remembers going to her daughter’s Christmas concert and not being able to fit into the chair or to a soccer game and not participating with other parents on the field.

Her co-workers have been extremely supportive but she said there were many times when she wanted to hide in a corner rather than be out in front of customers.

When she decided to have weight loss surgery, she had another stigma to overcome.

“When you tell people you are having weight loss surgery they ask if you’ve tried dieting – as if surgery would be my first choice,” said Faris. “Then they talk about surgery as the easy way out. There is nothing about having this procedure that is easy. A vertical gastric sleeve is a tool and I still have to use it correctly to get the desired results,” said Faris. “I look at it like this – a pair of scissors will cut the grass but by the time you are done, you have to start over. However, if you use a lawnmower you get it done faster and more efficiently. Does that mean you are taking the easy way or using the right tool?”

That logic means strategy for Faris. She believes in keeping a food journal, planning meals and serving them on divided plates – sectioned by proteins and carbs.

Shearer, who is married to Ronald, works nights and spends her free time running her three daughters to band, cross country, basketball, choir, science club and church activities.

“I want this to be about real life. If I did meal prep I’d feel defeated. I don’t want any part of this journey to be about defeat or being envious of someone else. I want it to be about me,” said Shearer. “I am conscious about what I eat but I’m also realistic on the toll working nights takes on my body.”

Both women agree on one thing – embracing the high points.

Shearer calls her triplets her “trainers” because they motivate her to work out. “They call it ‘Shaun T time,’ and they only give me a couple days off a week,” said Shearer, referring to the popular “Insanity” and “Hip Hop Abs” fitness programs. Faris likes to work out to Beach Body yoga and runs.

“This summer I plan to do a few more 5ks,” said Faris. “I have a goal to have a 13- minute mile by the end of September 2019. This means taking another five minutes off my mile.”

And every day – it’s the little things that affirm their weight loss decision:

“It’s fun to go clothes shopping now and I’m not in the big girl section. I can even buy my bras at regular stores,” said Shearer.

“I felt my collarbone for the first time when I was standing in the cafeteria talking to the chef,” said Faris.

“I broke out in tears at a family reunion when I could cross my legs,” said Shearer.

“I can sit in a chair with arms on it and not feel trapped,” said Faris.

“My girls don’t have to help me up the bleachers during basketball games,” said Shearer.

“I’m so used to saying the number ‘3’ as in 300 – that it feels weird to say ‘2,’” said Faris.

“I took my first spin class yesterday at the YMCA. I honestly had to look down. Because all I could do was cry. There is no way I could have even got on the cycling bike a year ago. I finished all 53 minutes of that class. I did 17 miles,” said Shearer.

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

Thelma & Louise keep NICU team emergency ready

IU Health Arnett’s twin simulators representing babies at 25 weeks gestation help keep NICU staff prepared for various scenarios.

They can hear breathing sounds. They can intubate the infants. There’s a chamber under the umbilical lines for blood return. These twins aren’t real but they simulate real life – the life that comes from newborns – often in distress.

The Premature Anne Task Trainer Twin Pack – commonly known as “Thelma and Louise” – are the newest additions to the NICU family at IU Health Arnett. Their arrival came when they were at 25 weeks gestation – that’s 15 weeks premature.  And they are a welcome addition to the NICU team. Every month – and sometimes more often – the simulators are the center of attention for a Neonatal Resuscitation Program (NRP) training attended by about 130 hospital employees working in the child health line including doctors, nurses, nurse midwives, respiratory therapists and nurse practitioners.

“This is very typical for us. We aren’t training for things we rarely see. We want to continue training for things we experience so we are able to react to every situation in the best way,” said Shari Hacker, a Clinical Nurse in the NICU who also works as a rescue squad captain with the Wabash Township Fire Department.

Neonatal clinical nurse Becky Kudelka describes a typical scenario: “We had a 35-year-old mom who was pregnant with multiples. She came in dilated at three centimeters and delivered within five minutes. She was 27 weeks pregnant. All of the babies needed intubated; all were on ventilators. They were the sickest and weakest preemies but they all ended up turning out well because we have a strong team with lots of experience.” At one point they had up to 14 people working with the newborns.

Neonatologist Dr. Abhay Singhal – a parent himself – and the medical director of NICU pediatrics at Arnett has been a big proponent of the training and purchase of the simulators, funded by a grant from IU Health Foundation. 

“We want every mother to feel like we can provide the highest level of care to her newborn,” said Kudelka, who has been a NICU nurse for 16 years. “And we want anyone to be trained to assist at any time in any of these types of high-risk deliveries,” added Hacker, who has been a NICU nurse for 11 years and an EMT for 19 years. In addition to NRP training, twice a year the NICU stages a mock code to keep staff members on their toes. In the future, they also plan to reach out to smaller regional hospitals and the hospital’s ER staff to offer training.

Kudelka is the mother of two children, ages 12 and eight; Hacker is the mother of two daughters, ages 22 and 27. “My oldest was a preemie so I’ve been on the other side of the fence. We want to give every baby the best chance for as meaningful a survival as possible and as a parent in NICU I want to make sure the parents are involved and feel comfortable,” said Hacker.

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

Cancer led to her calling: She offers families a safe haven

When Amanda Milner’s marriage broke up and she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma she discovered a strength she didn’t know she had.

From a hospital bed at IU Health Simon Cancer Center a Florida resident talks about his care – he mentions his doctors, he mentions his nurses, he mentions the CompleteLife music therapist . . . and then he mentions someone named “Amanda.”

The patient – a realtor in Florida – knew he and his wife were going to be staying in Indiana for several weeks while he received treatment for a germ cell tumor. So he did his homework and began searching online for housing. That’s when he landed on the name “Amanda” and a place called “Fair Haven.” It became a temporary home while they were in Indiana.

“She came to see us when we got here and even brought us a goodie bag,” said Steve Rennick. He was not the first resident of Fair Haven but Amanda Milner, the director, made him feel like the first. She does that with all of her guests.

With the help of an IU Health Values Grant, Milner, who worked in the cellular therapy lab, launched Fair Haven in 2007. The grant, available to IU Health employees, was enough for her to rent three apartments for 18 months. The idea was to provide free lodging to out-of-town patients and their families.

She started with oncology patients because that is where she worked and that is what she knew. In 2001 – just a few weeks after her marriage dissolved and she found herself a single mother with two toddlers – Milner was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was under the care of oncologist Dr. Larry Cripe.

She was no stranger to cancer. At the age of five her mom’s only sister died of cancer. The tragedy left its mark on Milner’s heart. She knew then she would work toward bettering the lives of those fighting cancer. She didn’t know she would have her own battle but that personal experience helped heighten her sensitivity. She learned about challenges through the eyes of a patient. Six months after her diagnosis she was in remission.

But that mark on her heart from the awful disease was still there. It would never leave.

“In the midst of it all I saw God was there for me in so many ways,” said Milner. “My family, my friends and my church all supported me during that time and did many kind things for me.”

Her job in the bone marrow transplant program connected her with patients from all over the country and even throughout the world who were coming to IU Health seeking treatment for cancer. Like the patient from Florida, they needed a place to call home while they were here.

Milner’s own mother had immigrated from Egypt so she knew from her stories what it was like to try to find that safe haven – to feel comfortable in an unfamiliar community.

“Our mission became sharing the love of God through gracious hospitality and compassionate support. I’d absolutely say those were my mom’s highest values when she first met people,” said Milner. They named the nonprofit organization Fair Haven after the Mediterranean Island of Fair Havens, which gave refuge to a ship during a terrible storm.

Since 2008, Fair Haven has served more than 1,000 patients providing more than 25,000 nights of lodging. Milner devotes about 50 hours a week to Fair Haven. What started as three furnished apartments has grown to eight and is under the guidance of a five-person board of directors and three part-time staff members. Several churches and volunteers also assist in providing families with meals, transportation and other support services.

Fair Haven has become an essential ancillary to out-of-town patients. So essential that it is growing to meet the demand.

“Thousands of patients travel to Indianapolis each year for the expertise and specialized care that IU Health offers.  There is a tremendous need for lodging and support for these families who are facing overwhelming challenges as they battle a serious illness while far from home,” said Milner.  “Growth is crucially needed and that’s why our board developed a two-phase plan for expansion.  It’s exciting because we’ve raised almost half of our $2.25M campaign to open a new facility that will allow Fair Haven to provide a home-away-from-home for more than 400 families annually.  It will be comparable to charitable lodging facilities at academic health centers across the country.” 

Milner says with support of the community, the plan is to have the new facility up and running later this year or early next year.  The remodel includes plans for 12 hotel-style rooms, a dining room where volunteers can serve meals to guests, a chapel, and drop-in services where non-residents can get away from the hospital to take a shower, wash their clothes, and get a meal.

And at the center of the remodel will be a stained glass window.

“It symbolizes a sacred window in people’s lives,” said Milner. “Together, we shine a light of hope for them in their darkest time.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

Sister Support: “I haven’t had a treatment where she wasn’t there.”

She went in for her first colonoscopy at the age of 54. Her sister was there when she received the grim news – Jane Bilyeu was diagnosed with colon cancer.

She had put it off. It was just one of those things she didn’t get around to. She felt fine and just thought a little bloating may have been part her premenopausal symptoms.

At the age of 54, Jane Bilyeu went in for a routine colonoscopy. The American Cancer Society recently changed guidelines and now recommends screening should begin at age 45, rather than age 50 for people at average risk for colorectal cancer. With good health and no family history, Bilyeu was in no rush.

“It kept weighing on me and coming to the forefront to get it done,” said Bilyeu. Her older sister, Cindy Levy passed the time during the procedure sitting in the waiting room eating a sandwich and reading a book. The sisters grew up on the west side and attended St. Anne’s Catholic Church along with their parents Charles and Elva Adams. Both are deceased. Bilyeu is the youngest and has two other sisters – Marie Adams and Susan Adams –both married men with their maiden names – and a brother Tim Adams.

Bilyeu attended the former St. Anne’s grade school; took her first communion at St. Anne’s at the age of eight, was confirmed at the parish at the age of, 14 and married her husband Duke at St. Anne’s when she was 19. Her children and grandchildren were baptized at St. Anne’s. Bilyeu, the mother of two daughters, and grandmother to seven – including a set of five-year-old twins – still attends the St. Anne’s parish.

And on the day she learned she had colorectal cancer – April 21, 2015 – she leaned on two things – faith and family.

“It was a life-changing day,” said Bilyeu. “I’m glad my sister was there. I haven’t had a treatment where she wasn’t there since.”

A month after the diagnosis, she had surgery to remove the tumor along with 24 lymph nodes. Six months of chemotherapy followed and then three month visits with her oncologist. Things were looking good.

But then in March 2018, a scan showed a tumor on her pelvis and two spots on her liver. She had been treated at another hospital at the time and was was referred to IU Health and Dr. Attila Nakeeb.

“In April the plan was to remove the tumor from my pelvis and off my liver, but when he went to do surgery he said it looked like someone had sprinkled salt and pepper on my abdomen. There were multiple implants,” said Bilyeu.  “He removed 90 percent of the tumor on my pelvis and re-sectioned my small intestine.” She was in the hospital for 10 days. During that time genetic testing showed she had a type of colon cancer that could be treated with targeted therapy. She began the treatments in July and finished around the Christmas holiday. When her scans showed that her condition was stabilizing; her oncologist began talking to her about maintenance therapy – chemotherapy every two weeks.

It was that visit right after the holidays when Bilyeu was apprehensive and a little overwhelmed that she met CompleteLife massage therapist Michelle Bailey. That one encounter helped put Bilyeu’s mind at ease.

“She said, ‘would you like a foot massage or hand massage?’ I just melted. She’s been the highlight. I’ve gotten to know her and I look forward to her coming,” said Bilyeu. “She verbally comforted us and gave us reassurance,” said Levy.

Through the course of her treatment, Bilyeu, a Mary Kay cosmetics distributor, has been open to alternative forms of therapy. As she and her sister sit munching on popcorn and sipping tea, she talks about focusing. They laugh about camping trips they shared as kids and how they spend hours on the phone catching up even after they’ve just seen each other.

“I’m the snack provider – I try to make sure she has the comforts she needs to get through this. Michelle’s massage therapy was all part of that,” said Levy. “It’s important to help her direct her thoughts and to be present.”

Bilyeu describes her older sister as her rock. In addition to snacks, she packs several bottles of essential oils to apply to her feet and back to help relieve the pain.

“I have learned that you have to rely on everything and everyone you can in the healing process said Bilyeu, who adheres to a strict plant-based diet and no sugars. “You’ve got to do everything you can to improve your health. It’s about your overall wellbeing. Since my diagnosis I’ve been on a journey to learn more about how to take care of myself because I can’t control that I have cancer but I can control what I do to help my body heal and at the top of that list is family support.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

Cancer patient discovers his talent through therapy

Sean McKinney is finding new ways to cope with his cancer diagnosis and treatment – through music and art.

As Sean McKinney strums on an electric guitar accompanied by IU Health Music Therapist Adam Perry, he talks about some personal discoveries.

First there was the diagnosis of testicular cancer. Then there was the unveiling of his creative side.

“I think I may have had one guitar lesson when I was young and I’ve dabbled in art but this has helped me pass the time and also think in a different way,” said McKinney, 23. Besides strumming a few chords on the electric guitar, he painted a birdhouse, and sketched a few drawings. One that he’s most proud of is a geometric background with a jewel as the focal point. He’s hoping to use the sketch as a logo for some educational materials about testicular cancer.

“We hear a lot about breast cancer and I want to create more awareness about testicular cancer and get guys to check themselves,” said McKinney, a resident of Tecumseh, MI. a town about an hour southwest of Detroit and four hours north of Indianapolis.

McKinney came to Indiana with his mom, Karen Lithgow. It was his mom who discovered IU Health oncologist Dr. Lawrence Einhorn through a social media group. Dr. Einhorn is known around the world for his successful treatment of germ cell tumors using a mix of high dose chemotherapies and peripheral stem cell transplant.

“When Sean was diagnosed I needed to know everything and I needed to know it yesterday. I sent his test results to Dr. Einhorn and he called on a Thursday and asked if we could be here the following Tuesday,” said Lithgow. Sean also has a sister, 21 and twin siblings, 18 back in Michigan. “We could have done this treatment in Michigan but traveled here to see Dr. Einhorn and chose IU Health because they perform so many stem cell treatments. We felt that although the treatment itself would be the same, his side effects would be best managed at IU Health where the staff had ‘seen everything,’” said Lithgow.  “We definitely made the right decision. Sean had an episode of AFib here, as well as some challenging moments during the second stem cell transplant. His nurses have been amazing at caring for him and getting him through these times.
“As a mother it’s a tough thing to watch, seeing your child go through chemo. Being at IU Health has helped me tremendously. I have so much confidence in Sean’s team and their concern for him has been very personal. That means so much to patients and really helps them mentally, which can be as important as the medicine itself.”

Lithgow said she’s seen Sean grow through his diagnosis and treatment.

“The art and music classes he’s had while inpatient have given him insight into some talents he never knew he had. He has met other patients like himself who have really helped.  He’s had spiritual support too. All of these things have brought something very positive to the otherwise negative event of cancer,” said Lithgow.

McKinney’s symptoms began with leg pain that he described as “sciatica” – back pain that shot down his leg.

“I was working in a production facility and I spent a lot of hours on my feet so I didn’t think much about it,” said McKinney. That was in March 2018. Three months later he was in Myrtle Beach with his girlfriend and the pain got worse.

“I was in the ocean and got knocked down by a wave and the pain got worse and continued the whole time I was there,” said McKinney. When he returned home, he went to urgent care thinking he had a bruised rib, but he ended up at the hospital. A CT scan showed an 11-centimeter tumor in his abdomen pushing on his vena cava – the primary vein that returns blood to the heart from the head, neck and upper limbs. Doctors initially thought he had lymphoma but further testing showed testicular cancer. Following an orchiectomy and nine weeks of chemotherapy, McKinney came to IU Health where he is in the care of Dr. Einhorn.

As he takes time to order two peanut butter sandwiches, McKinney talks about his progress toward healing.

“I feel great. I have an appetite and I think Dr. Einhorn is phenomenal. I was resistant to come here at first, but I’m glad I did,” said McKinney.

Back home, McKinney enjoys bowling and attended college on a bowling scholarship. He also likes to ride four-wheelers, hang out with his girlfriend, play with the family dog, and cut grass.

“After his first chemo treatment he was out walking around our pond and cutting grass,” said his mom. “He likes to keep busy and I think this whole experience has helped him slow down a little and discover his artistic talents. Sometimes you get so busy in life you don’t have time to explore things. While this has been horrible in so many ways, he’s also found the good and he’s had some great distractions through art and music.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

What a difference a year makes: One woman’s journey to weight loss

One woman shares her weight loss journey working with the IU Health Ball Medical Weight Loss Program.

There’s a picture that says it all – a smiling Linda Johnson is wearing a life vest – her son and grandson by her side – as they prepare for a day of kayaking. There’s another picture too of her with her 87-year-old aunt cheering at a Colts game.

A year has passed since Johnson of Gaston, IN. started her journey toward weight loss.

“I had heard of other successes and I really needed something that would work for me. IU Health’s program sounded like the right fit,” said Johnson. “Obviously with my success in it, it was great for me.  I was in a good place in life, spiritually and mentally to make it happen.”

Johnson participated in the IU Health Ball Medical Weight Loss Program, which offers a multidisciplinary approach to weight loss under the supervision of a physician or nurse practitioner. “A very a very low calorie, ketogenic diet is controlled in carbohydrate leading to a breakdown in body fat to produce ketones as a source of alternative fuel,” said Mandy L. Puckett, manager of clinical nutrition & weight management systems at IU Health Ball Memorial Bariatric & Medical Weight Loss Center.

“This approach is considered a tool to promote the weight loss, while working with a team of registered dietitians, exercise specialists, and behavioral health specialists whom provide education and resources to support behavior change to sustain lost weight,” said Puckett.   

Another black and white photo is an image of Johnson before she started the program.  The fuzzy image is a reminder to Johnson of what life was like before she started her weight loss journey.

“I had a tremendous amount of pain daily from my degenerative disc disease and degenerative arthritis, primarily my knees and back. My blood pressure was high and I was on meds and suffered a lot of heart burn/GERD, and was very tired,” said Johnson. “I was limited on the type of physical activity with my family and couldn’t enjoy some of the activities and involvement I wanted to do with son and grandson.”

She calls herself a “farm girl” who lives in the country and loves to be outside. But even the daily chores were difficult to accomplish.

According to Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Data (BRFSS), adult obesity rates now exceed 30 percent in 29 US states and 25 percent in 48 states. In 2017, Indiana was ranked 12th. It’s estimated one in three Americans are obese (a body mass index of 30 or higher). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the following health risks for persons facing obesity:  High blood pressure, Type II diabetes, coronary heat disease, stroke, sleep apnea, and some cancers.

The first step to beginning the weight loss program for Johnson was to attend a one-hour free seminar. From there a program was tailored to meet her goals. The program includes a support team to provide guidance with diet, exercise and strategies for maintaining and sustaining weight-loss goals.  Additional support was provided through groups, social media connections and community events.

In addition to feeling healthier, Johnson, who works as a case manager for the Area Five Agency on Aging and Community Services wanted to resume an active life. “I like to work on household projects, quilt, play cards and I love my family and pets. I am very dedicated to my social services work in healthcare helping other people, primarily the elderly and disabled.  It is God’s gift for me to share.”

So on July 4 when she was able to join her son and grandson for a day of kayaking – four months after she began her weight loss journey – it was a day to remember.

“That would never have happened before,” said Johnson. “I exercise some by riding my stationary bike; but, overall just try and be more active and I look forward to summer when I can be outside. I am off blood pressure medicine, off GERD medicine, and I’ve reduced nearly all Tylenol for pain and can sleep so much better. I feel great.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.