Her body and her brain were locked in a battle for her health

A former elite swimmer opens up about the physical and mental toll her gastrointestinal condition took on her well-being – and how psychotherapy saved her.

When Renice Dobbs paces the pool deck, cheering on the west-side swim team she coaches, she’d love to be able to jump in, maybe even race her young crew. Dobbs was once a championship swimmer. She took to the water at the age of 12 and competed with USA Swimming as a member of Indy Dolphins. She even had dreams of making it to the Olympics or at least to the Olympic Trials.

Now the closest she can get to the water is the pool deck. A central line in her chest gives her body nourishment as she struggles with the physical and mental effects of gastroparesis – a disease in which the stomach cannot empty itself of food in a normal fashion.

Still, just being near the water is progress for the 28-year-old Brownsburg resident, who felt her life slipping away as she endured debilitating symptoms, multiple hospitalizations and emergency department visits while doctors tried to find the cause of her nausea, vomiting and weight loss.

It was shortly after her 25th birthday in 2015 when Dobbs started to feel ill. She doesn’t tie it to a specific event, saying it started randomly.

“I thought it was the flu, and it wasn’t the flu,” she said. “Then I thought I was pregnant, and I wasn’t pregnant. It spiraled out of control from there.”

She underwent test after test, she tried medications, and she had her gall bladder removed. Each time, she hoped to find relief. When her symptoms persisted over a year’s time, she and her husband, Michael, opted to go to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., where the diagnosis of gastroparesis was eventually made after several visits.

By then, she had lost nearly 40 pounds off her 5-foot, 5-inch frame. Her weight dipped to 107 pounds before doctors put in a feeding tube. Doctors in Florida transferred her to IU Health gastroenterologist Andrea Shin.

For the next year, Dobbs was in and out of the hospital, dealing with dehydration, anemia and problems with her feeding tube. She spent Thanksgiving 2017 in the hospital. That was hard enough. Then she was let go from her job as an administrative assistant.

“Things were crumbling around me,” she said.


One bright spot in her ordeal was her husband, who supported her in every way he knew how.

“We’ve been married for six years, and half of it has been me being sick,” she said. “He’s been doing a great job with the ‘in sickness and in health’ part.”

What Dobbs didn’t know during this time was that her symptoms were being aggravated by anxiety and stress. It took several visits with a psychologist for that to sink in with her.

When Dr. Shin suggested she make an appointment with Dr. Anne Mary Montero, a clinical psychologist with the GI division (technically Digestive and Liver Disorders) at IU Health, she was resistant, to put it mildly.

“I’m doing fine,” she told everyone. “Why can’t everybody see that I’m doing fine?”

But in reality, she said, “I was not doing fine at all. I needed Dr. Montero, and I couldn’t see that, and no one could point that out to me without it being offensive to me.”


None of that surprises Dr. Montero, who explains that she is prohibited ethically from discussing any patient’s case but is free to speak in general about treating individuals who suffer a combination of physical and psychological reactions to chronic and/or serious illness.

The physical condition is real, she tells patients, just as the stress is real. But the stigma surrounding mental health can get in the way of proper treatment.

“It’s so unfortunate that the very symptom patients are coming in to get support for can be misinterpreted or internalized as something that patients commonly may feel – that their doctor either doesn’t believe them, thinks they’re ‘crazy’ or thinks it’s all in their head,” she said.

There’s no such thing as “all in your head,” she tells them. Half of all physical symptoms cannot be fully explained by identified medical conditions.

“Physicians who are looking at the constellation of a patient’s symptoms, with all of their experience, intellect and testing resources, may be able to identify a number of significant contributors but remarkably, up to 50 percent can’t be fully medically explained.”

Dr. Montero, who has offices at IU Health North Hospital and IU Health Springmill Medical Clinic, appreciates when the medical care team incorporates mental health providers into a patient’s care when warranted. Psychological factors can constitute at least one layer contributing to a patient’s symptoms. But that doesn’t mitigate other layers that might also contribute, she said.

With 20 years’ experience in the field, she has studied in depth what she calls the brain-gut axis, which describes how the two areas of the body communicate with each other.

Essentially, what’s going on in your gut can affect your brain and vice versa. It can become a vicious cycle.

“It’s how our bodies are wired,” Dr. Montero said. “Digestive organs are like a central processing unit in the body that collectively regulates a lot of our body’s functions. Among those are some emotional responses. It’s a two-way arrow, a reverberating process where one end of the domain affects the other.”

By the time patients meet with her, they often are discouraged after months or years of tests and treatments. They may have had to stop working, their relationships may be in peril, and their quality of life has suffered greatly. It’s no surprise they are skeptical of the focus on their mental health when it’s their physical health that is the problem.

“All kinds of emotions build up before they have the chance to get to my office. Emotional distress feels nebulous and it’s hard to imagine how that can be treated,” she said.

Patients often feel someone is going to blame them for having this distress, she said. “I say the opposite – this is a normal part of the brain-gut interaction; people just aren’t aware of it.”

One of the first things she tells patients is that their symptoms are real, their condition is real. Her job is to help them identify stressors and triggers that aggravate their physical condition, then come up with exercises to manage those stressors.


For Dobbs that meant coming up with techniques to deal with nausea and vomiting, the latter often happening three times a day. She practices breathing and visualization exercises to keep the vomiting at bay, though the nausea is always with her, she said. She has gone two months now without a vomiting spell.

After two years of multiple in-patient hospital stays and trips to the emergency department, Dobbs recently celebrated a year without a hospital stay or ED visit. She attributes that to Dr. Montero.

“I felt heard for the first time,” she said.

She admits she didn’t want to talk to a psychologist at first. She knew her symptoms weren’t all in her head, and she was relieved when Dr. Montero assured her she was right.

“I think I even cried,” Dobbs said, after her second visit to the therapist. “I really opened up. I needed somebody to talk to and she was right there.”

In the back of her mind, Dobbs said, she always knew there had to be a connection between her emotional state and her physical health.

“It was something I needed to come to terms with. I’ll always have this baseline condition, but if I’m not handling these other stressors that are triggers, this isn’t going to get better, it’s going to get worse. That was a reality check for me,” she said. “You have this physical condition and when you add stress and anxiety on top of that, it starts to spin out of control. It gets so big no amount of medication or treatment is going to get you back.”

She acknowledges she doesn’t have it all under control, but her monthly appointments with Dr. Montero help guide her through the worst of it.

Two or three years ago, when she was suffering the worst of her symptoms, she said she would wake up every morning feeling physically terrible and mentally exhausted. Hopeless even.

“Even though I still wake up physically exhausted, I feel more ready to take on the world,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago I was a very competitive athlete on the national level.”

Life has changed, but now Dobbs pours her energy into the young swimmers she coaches as part of the USA Swimming club Giant Aquatics.

“It’s my outlet,” she said. It helps her forget about everything else.

The other distraction she and her husband live for is Disney World. They are Disney Vacation Club members, visiting the parks and resorts a few times a year. “It’s a chance to get away from the real world. It’s a magical place.”

They even named their Miniature Australian Shepherd pup Oswald (Ozzie) for Walt Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon character, which dates back to the 1920s.


Dobbs agreed to share her deeply personal story because she hopes to encourage others in similar situations to reach out for help.

“Not every mental health professional is trying to pin you with a ‘crazy’ label. They’re really trying to help you. You can put your faith in them. Dr. Montero deserves to know that’s how I feel about this. She’s been that amazing to me and my journey.”

For her part, Dr. Montero said she is honored when people allow her to come into their lives at such a vulnerable moment. For psychotherapy to be successful, patients have to lean in and engage during treatment, she said.

“As much as I wish I could wave a magic wand and help people feel better, it’s more like dancing. You have to lean in toward one another and teach them steps so they can learn how to do the healing increasingly independently.”

When patients arrive already discouraged, it takes a lot more effort to move forward, she said. “But if they’re open and can lean in with me, I never cease to be amazed at the resilience of the human spirit and the human body.”

– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist
Email: mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Their Motivation Begins With the Letter “C”

Hundreds of people filled Military Park Saturday to form a community of strength in the fight against breast cancer.

From a wheelchair, 90-year-old Joreen Caldwell smiled and waved as she celebrated 65 years of survival. Crossing the finish line in a wheelchair on the other side of Military Park Ivy McConnell celebrated five days of survival.

Both women were among hundreds of survivors of breast cancer at Saturday’s Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. Friends and family members joined the women forming a blanket of pink warming the cool April morning.

This year’s event raised more than $600,000 toward 40,000 cancer care and education services in 41 counties. The overall goal of the race is to raise enough funds to reduce the number of breast cancer deaths by 50 percent. More than 2,000 Central Indiana women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually and it is estimated more than 400 will die of the disease.

This year marked the 28th annual Race for the Cure. Teams of friends and family members joined hands as they crossed the finish line – with team names like “Faithful Friends,” “Guardian of Girls,” and “Treasure Your Chest.” Team IU Health raised nearly $4,000 and IU Health Corporate Team raised more than $12,000.

Dressed from head to toe in pink – including a wig and tennis shoes– Wade Greegor, known as “Pink Crusader” left his home in Louisville, KY. at 3 a.m. to join the race. Crystal Sanders painted her nails pink for her tenth year of participating in the race. Her sister Rachonna Lang joined her. Another crew of 35 – team “Hello Titty” ranged in age from 74 to six months. They were walking for family members.

Four-year-old Jax Walls and his brother Jett walked with their mother, Courtney Manley – in honor of their grandma Deanna Manley, a 20-year survivor. The boys had their hair dyed pink and they wore shirts that read: “For My Di Di.”

Monica Pagac is a two-and-half year survivor. She was joined by her husband Zack and children Lexi, 12; Hunter, 9 and Cora, 3.

Caldwell figures she may be one of the oldest survivors and one of the longest-living survivors.

“I survived two strokes to come here and walk one more year,” she said.
Ninety years is a long time and 65 years is too.”

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

Chaplain listens with her eyes, ears and heart

Single mother. Struggling artist. Christian. A woman who is familiar with domestic violence and childhood adversity. Keisha Poe-Hinton draws on her personal experiences to empathize with the patients she serves as a residency chaplain at IU Health University Hospital.

Her mother was talking to her about a “blue room in heaven.” Keisha Poe-Hinton wanted to tune it out. She didn’t want to hear about her mother dying.

“I didn’t want to think about her having a peaceful life and leaving me behind,” said Poe-Hinton. There was anxiety. There was anger. But Poe-Hinton said she knew then that God was preparing her for a career serving others. “When I went to the hospital to see my mom, there was a chaplain in her room. It gave me an experience like no other. I knew my mom was in good hands.”

Her mother had been diagnosed with leukemia and contracted sepsis. She passed on Dec. 23, 2015 at the age of 69. Her death had a profound effect on Poe-Hinton – one that was also transformational.

Poe-Hinton and her older sister grew up in East Chicago, IN. raised by a single mom, three aunts and a granny who turns 99 on May 10. In high school she loved music, and history and played softball and ran track. She played the clarinet in the marching band and sang in the choir. She dreamed of becoming a professional singer.

After high school she continued singing and performing as a student at Indiana University – with the IU Soul Review, The African American Choral Ensemble, and the African American Dance Company. She thrived under the coaching of great professors including local opera’s dramatic soprano Angela Brown.

She was in her second year at IU when, at the age of 20, she became pregnant. Her daughter was born on a Sunday and she was determined to get back to class the following Thursday.

“I remember my professor saying, ‘Keisha, why are you here. You should be resting.’ I was afraid that if I took a break I would not have the strength or courage to continue on so I went back to school and never took a break,” said Poe-Hinton.

It wasn’t easy. She had to catch two buses to get to and from campus. Her friends helped her watch her daughter and along the way she taught her daughter some of the things she was learning – Spanish and math. She graduated with a bachelor’s in African American studies and moved to California to pursue her dream of singing professionally.

“You pray and ask the Lord to take you some place and then you forget about him. By me disconnecting from the Lord I was homeless. I slept on my friend’s couch,” said Poe-Hinton. Two trash bags were filled with the scarce belongings of the Midwestern mom and her young daughter. Everything else had been put in storage back home and was eventually cleared out by the storage company without her consent. She moved back to East Chicago and began looking for a job and doing a lot of soul searching along the way.

“I remember talking to my mom’s boyfriend at the time and telling him I was low and discouraged. He’d had his own struggles but was in a good place and was an unlikely person to guide me but he did. My daughter was in preschool and I wanted to go back to California but there was nothing to go back to,” said Poe-Hinton.

As an act of starting anew and freeing herself, she shaved her head. She didn’t know then that one day she would minister to cancer patients and share with them her journey to a fresh start.

“For every lesson, there’s a blessing; for every test there’s a testimony; for every story God will get the glory. God showed me favor.”

She landed a job at a local radio station working in accounts payable and began a career that would span a decade with various radio and TV stations. She wrote commercials, slotted advertising, and excelled in customer service.

“For a short period of time I was the only African American working at a country station. I learned so much about customer service and I learned it from the president. He had an open door policy and we had a lot of small conversations at the water fountain about my daughter’s soccer games or just life. I learned how to love on people in the workplace,” said Poe-Hinton.

She got married to Arthur Hinton, an elementary school principal, who adopted her daughter. Together they have a son Arthur Hinton IV, who is a sophomore at Covenant Christian High School where he plays on the soccer team. They moved to Indianapolis 23 years ago and Poe-Hinton obtained a master’s degree in urban ministry from Martin University. She has a master’s in divinity degree from Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Poe-Hinton began working as a therapist for Families First and her daughter, who obtained her degree in psychology, eventually joined her as an addiction counselor.

“While we were working there my mom started getting sick. I went home every weekend to see her. One thing I learned by being a therapist is that to help someone you need to do an assessment to see how they got to where they are. I realized in talking to others that I needed to do an assessment of my own life and family,” said Poe-Hinton. “I had a lot of anger and the Lord showed me about forgiveness. She began apologizing to people she thought she’d let down – her mom, her daughter. And she began to let go of disappointment and sadness – the man who hurt her in college, the singing career that she never got off the ground, the lost years of healthy relationships with family members.

Poe-Hinton became a licensed minister in 2013, two years before her mother passed. After her mother’s death she began volunteering at IU Health Methodist Hospital. “I couldn’t go on the floor but I was happy stacking books and refilling Kleenex in the chapel, because it was my way of serving,” said Poe-Hinton.

She began a chaplaincy internship two years ago but realized she was still mourning her own loss. She continued working through her grief and took a second internship. She is now in her first year of chaplain residency and working toward her Doctorate of Ministry in Spiritual Formation. Her role takes her to the bedside of patients throughout IU Health University Hospital and Simon Cancer Center.

She still enjoys singing and has shared her talent with a church praise team.

“I’m leaving it to the Lord but I know he’s called me to minister to women who are suffering, said Poe-Hinton. “He has me where he wants me now. I practice a lot of active listening with patients – being present because I didn’t want to do that when my mom talked about the blue room in heaven. I recently had a patient talking about death and being on the other side running through the grass. His story was liberating. I am no longer in a place where I am afraid to hear that. I know there is joy on the other side and I want to share love and compassion for people who are working through that part of their lives.”

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

Patient From Venezuela: “Hospitals Know About Hospitality”

College student Diego Astorga hopes to own his own hotel one day. His stay at IU Health taught him much about the hospitality industry.

From the time he was about 11 years old, Diego Astorga traveled with his family – learning about different customs, countries, and cultures. His father, also named Diego, works in the hotel industry.

“I remember our first trip to South America. We stayed all the way down here,” he said pointing to a map showing the Southern most tip of Argentina. “It was in a brand new hotel in the middle of nowhere and an amazing memory for me.”

Over the years the family – his dad, mother Maria Canestri and sister Victoria Astorga – enjoyed travels throughout Europe and Asia. And when Diego left for college he chose a campus in the Southern Region of Ontario Canada nearly 3,000 miles from his home in Caracas, Venezuela.

He was in his third year of studying hospitality management and completing a six-month food and beverage internship in China when he began feeling pain in his back.

“I love to explore. I wanted to learn about a new culture and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Astorga, 22 of his study in China. “I’m lucky that my mom and dad have always supported me on my adventures.”

But the back pain became worse. He thought it was kidney stones and by November 2018, he was back in Canada attending classes at Niagara College but couldn’t concentrate. He went to the hospital and stayed for six hours waiting for some answers.

He was diagnosed with testicular cancer. An 11-centimeter tumor was discovered in the retroperitoneal space in the abdominal cavity.

“I was alone when they gave me the news. They put me in the emergency room and the first person I called was my cousin who is studying medicine,” said Astorga. “I passed the phone to the doctor and he talked to my cousin who took notes.” His cousin’s father is an oncologist and was familiar with IU Health oncologist Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, known for successful treatment of testicular cancer – germ cell tumors -using a mix of high dose chemotherapies and peripheral stem cell transplant.

Astorga’s parents met him in Canada and together they flew home to Venezuela. He completed rounds of chemotherapy but the tumor only shrunk about 30 percent – not what they had hoped for. The family traveled to New York to meet with oncologists for a second opinion – hoping to have surgery to remove the tumor. But when his tumor markers continued to increase, they postponed the surgery.

With few answers, their anxiety levels were on the rise and they were searching for the best treatment options. A partner in the clinic where Astorga’s uncle practices had studied with Dr. Einhorn. The two oncologists suggested Astorga and his family come to IU Health. They arrived to Indianapolis on March 4 and met Dr. Einhorn the following day.

Dr. Einhorn had been to Venezuela and he knew Maria Siddons, clinical coordinator of destination services is from Venezuela and speaks fluent Spanish. “He sent a message to Maria and said ‘please take good care of these people’” said Astorga. “From that point my whole world changed.”

After reviewing Astorga’s medical records, Dr. Einhorn recommended surgery only –no stem cell transplant. IU Health Dr. Timothy Masterson performed the procedure to remove the tumor.

“Days after surgery when my blood work came back I was alone with Dr. Einhorn. God bless him. I hugged him and I cried,” said Astorga. “I shared my concerns with him and he said ‘this shouldn’t be happening to you. You should be worrying about tests and homework. When I talked about my fears he said ‘there is no crystal ball to see into the future.’ He made me understand there is no reason for fears.”

As part of his studies, Astorga read a book given to him by his father. He recites a phrase he read in the book: “I believe the hospitality industry comes from the same mother and father as hospitals.” His passion is hospitality and he sees it as a way to teach about serving and caring for others.

“The hospital is the same – Dr. Einhorn, Dr. Masterson, Maria, the interpreter Luis Aldrey – they all worked together to make us feel comfortable, said Astorga. “They take amazing care of us. I really hope the citizens know how lucky they are to have an institution like IU Health. This is a place that solves problems. They give you energy and strength after you have been knocked down so many times. They show passion and human soul – it’s a gift that brings joy to others.”

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

Organ donor’s sister: “It brought goodness out of something bad”

It’s been 20 years since she lost her sister. And now nurse Gwenn Christianson, senior partner with the Indiana Poison Center at IU Health Methodist Hospital talks about her family’s decision to give the gift of life.

“I should warn you. This isn’t a new story. It happened 20 years ago, but I think it’s as pertinent now as it was back then.”

Those were Gwenn Christianson’s introductory words before she began telling a story that in fact is as familiar to her today as it was two decades ago. It’s the story of a family’s choice. A choice made during one of the most difficult times in their lives.

Christianson’s mother sat by the hospital bed singing quietly to her youngest daughter she had carried for nine months and watched grow up and have children of her own. Those three children came in and out of the hospital room, confused but wanting to see their mom for what might be one last time. Christianson and her two brothers took turns holding their sister’s hand.

It is a day Christianson will never forget. It was April 7, 1999, the day her “baby” sister – 18 months younger – passed. Becki Spanenberg-Flores was 35.

“She went into the hospital on a Tuesday night with an asthma attack,” said Christianson. “ She was in ICU but was doing well. I talked to her husband Thursday morning and they were planning to move her to a floor. Then four hours later I got a call that she was on the ventilator and was having problems. I left work and drove to the hospital. I had been sitting at my desk answering phones and I can remember the desk I was sitting in. It’s all so clear, so familiar.”

It was touch and go for a bit but then Becki was stable, holding her own, as they say.

But on Friday, Christianson was back at that desk at the Indiana Poison Control Center at IU Health Methodist Hospital where she has worked for the past 31 years. Her phone rang again. It was her brother-in-law, Becki’s husband.

The news was grim. The family again huddled at the hospital.

“They were working on her, resuscitating her. We didn’t know it at the time but they had been working on her for a long time. They got her back. She was sedated. We could talk to her and hold her hand,” said Christianson. As she talks she dabs at tears.

Becki’s condition remained the same over the weekend.

“On Monday morning they did an MRI and on Monday evening the neurologist told us she was brain dead. We were all there – the whole family. There were screams. There were lots of tears,” said Christianson.


What seemed like a short lifetime of sharing the title “sisters” floods over Christianson. Both girls were born in Louisville, KY. – the children of Richard and Judie Spanenberg. They have two brothers William and James. Richard Spaneberg was a mechanical engineer – a job that took his family to several new locations they called “home” – to Clarksville, TN., La Cross, WI., and near Memphis, TN. When Christianson was 14 and her sister was 13 the family settled in Indiana.

Their mom was an ER nurse and their dad had been a member of the United States Air Force Band. The family grew up listening to band music, attending parades, and enjoying beach vacations. Christianson remembers the girls riding bikes in the neighborhood, playing Frisbee and coddling their younger brothers.

Becki caught her dad’s interest in the pomp and circumstance of performance and in high school she joined the flag corp. After graduation she attended Purdue for a couple of years and eventually married Geno Flores. She worked for RCI
for a time – a job that transferred her to Seattle. She longed to be back in Indiana so after a short time, they returned to their home state. Becki and Geno Flores had three children.

Mostly Becki was known for her generous, loving spirit.

She went on to work for Flag Corps assisting various high schools with their color guard units. She often went above and beyond her duties – on her own time helping sew together costumes for the students and coaching performers who needed a little extra help.

She also had a soft spot for animals.

“She couldn’t resist any sad-eyed pet in need of a home. She was always rescuing animals and bringing them home, and then they stayed for the rest of their lives,” said Christianson. She started with a gray tabby kitty named “Muffy” and a yellow dog named “Cara’ and eventually acquired three more dogs and a stray cat that turned up pregnant with six kittens.

Becki was a dedicated Cub Scout leader taking a week’s vacation to attend Camp Belzer every summer with her son. At one point she carried her youngest son in a back carrier for the week. She loved to walk with her Cub Scouts in the Fourth of July Parade.

“Becki was a giver. She loved to give people presents and she would drop whatever she was doing to welcome people to her home – stretching a dinner to feed a crew, offering dry clothes after a rainstorm, or sitting for a long chat with a cup of coffee,” said Christianson.


So on that Monday when the neurologist came in and said the words “brain dead” the family gathered. In addition to Christianson and her mom – both nurses – there are several other healthcare professionals in the family. Christianson’s brother William is a hospitalist, and his wife a pharmacist.

“We knew what was right. We knew what Becki would want,” said Christianson. They asked if Becki could be tested as a candidate for organ donation. The hospital contacted the Indiana Organ Procurement Organization.

“She had asthma and was not a compliant asthma patient, but was otherwise healthy and she was only 35,” said Christianson.

April is National Donate Life Month. The US Department of Health and Human Services reports in 2018 there were 17,533 organ donors; 10,722 were deceased donors; 6,831 were living donors. As of January 2019, there were more than 113,000 people throughout the United States awaiting a transplant. Each day about 80 people receive an organ transplant. Every 10 minutes a new person is added to the waiting list. Today one person can donate up to eight lifesaving organs –heart, two lungs, liver, pancreas, two kidneys, and intestine. They can also donate bones, skin, cornea and tendons.

“Yes, it was a difficult time, but it wasn’t a difficult decision,” said Christianson, still dabbing at tears. “We were in agreement that this was the right thing to do.”

In the past 20 years Becki’s family has received letters from a grandfather in his 60s who has a new heart. They have heard from a grateful schoolteacher in her 40s who has a new kidney and a man who has a healthy liver. The family opted not to meet the recipients.

In Becki’s final resting place is a headstone with the words: “Wife, Mother, Giver.” And in the upper left hand corner is a bronze medallion of two hands holding a heart. It reads: “Gift of Life Donor.” The message and the memory will live forever in the hearts of her family and friends.

“It’s enough to know that Becki’s giving spirit lives on. To be able to pause in the middle of one of the absolute worst moments of our lives and think about how this tragedy can help others, was enough,” said Christianson. “We knew it would not make her death any better, but we could at least bring some goodness out of something so bad and give someone else a gift of life.”

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

“I went in for a tonsillectomy and came out with a stage 3 tonsil cancer diagnosis”

At the age of 57, Dr. Phyllis Gilworth, a former school administrator, sought treatment for a pesky sore throat and was surprised by the diagnosis.

It was a stressful time in her life. Within 10 months she experienced the death of a parent, sold a house in Michigan City, built a new home in Plainfield, and began phasing out of her 35-year-career in education.

So when she developed a wicked sore throat in May 2107, Phyllis Gilworth chalked it up to a lifestyle on the fast track to many changes.

“It was like strep throat but was sore only on one side. I was bone tired, but not running a temperature . . . I am not well known to frequent doctors or miss work, but I did stay home and go to the clinic to get checked out,” said Gilworth. The initial diagnosis was a contagious virus common among young children – Hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

Three months later she had settled in Plainfield and was preparing for retirement as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at the School Town of Munster when the sore throat returned. She made another visit to a clinic and was again diagnosed with Hand-foot-and-mouth disease. Blood work showed no abnormalities; a strep test was negative; she had no fever and her white blood cells weren’t elevated.

A second round of blood work tested positive for Epstein-Barr virus (mono). More tests followed showing she had an abscessed tonsil. Her physician referred her to IU Health otolaryngolist Dr. Michael Myers and on November 10, 2017 she went in for what she thought would be routine surgery to remove her tonsils.

“At the age of 57 I went in for a tonsillectomy and came out with a Stage 3 cancer diagnosis. I did not see that coming, “said Gilworth.

“There are approximately 50,000 new cases of oral cancer per a year,” said Dr. Myers. “I have seen at least 65 over the past three years. Treatment for tonsil cancer is dependent on the stage at the time of diagnosis. Early stages can be treated with radiation with possible additional adjuvant chemotherapy. Patients may require surgery for more than tumors and tumors that do not respond to treatment with radiation and chemotherapy,” said Dr. Myers

Following surgery Gilworth went in for a PET scan to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of her body. “I was concerned about it moving to my brain, but Dr. Myers told me it would go to the lung, so the PET scan was critical to finding out what our next steps needed to be,” said Gilworth. The news was good. The cancer had not spread and was only present in one lymph node.

Based on those results it was decided that Gilworth would undergo seven weeks of radiation Monday through Friday. It was also determined that her cancer was HPV-related and was known to respond well to radiation. “Unfortunately, I was highly sensitive to the radiation and even though we took all precautions to prevent complications, my mouth really was damaged, and I did end up in the hospital with aspiration pneumonia due to swallowing difficulties,” said Gilworth, who was treated at IU Hospital West.

According to the National Cancer Institute, tonsil cancer accounts for about 3.5 percent of all oral cancers. Tobacco use is a leading cause of tonsil cancer. Human papilloma virus (HPV) is another cause of tonsil cancer. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention about 9,000 people a year are diagnosed with HPV-related cancer of the mouth and throat.

Through April 26th, practitioners with IU Health West Cancer Center, along with community dental health partners will offer free oral, head and neck cancer screenings. The screenings are highly recommended for adults with a history of tobacco use.

“I would encourage people to take advantage of any free screenings they can get and be sensitive to lumps, bumps sores or pain in the mouth throat or neck and be pro-active,” said Gilworth.

On February 5 she celebrated one year of completing radiation.

“During the first year I was seeing Dr. Myers and my oncologist Dr. Morgan Tharp monthly. We do routine scans, CT and PET, to make sure that there is nothing lurking, and we have now started to space out my appointments to every couple of months. I will be followed closely for five years and have been told by both Dr. Myers and Dr. Tharp that if I find a bump, or a lump, or I just don’t feel good to call immediately and they will get me right in. Do not wait,” said Gilworth.

“I learned a lot about myself. Things can change in a heartbeat,” said Gilworth. In the past year, she has traveled to Mexico, Spain and California making new memories. She started back pursuing accreditation work – a role that recently took her to South America.

“I am looking forward to even more opportunities to travel internationally. I am enjoying my kids and grandkids with abandon. I pray more and whine less. I bought myself a cherry red 2018 Camaro convertible and drive with the top down even when it’s cold, and never use the cruise control. I am blessed to have been given a second chance, I don’t intend to squander it.”

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

Methodist nurse wins Circle of Excellence Award

Jessica Jones is being welcomed into an esteemed club next month.

Jones, manager of clinical operations for the cardiovascular critical care unit at IU Health Methodist Hospital, is receiving the Circle of Excellence Award, a national honor given annually to only 15-20 nurses in the nation by the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

It’s an award she neither sought nor expected, but her colleagues in critical care thought she was deserving, so they nominated her without her knowledge.

“They conspired while I was on vacation,” she laughed, “and pulled together the application.”

The Circle of Excellence Award recognizes excellence in addressing the needs of acutely and critically ill patients and their families.

And that is something Jones excels at as a nurse and as a leader, her team said. Patient outcomes have improved, staff satisfaction has increased, and turnover has decreased in the four years since she assumed the management role.

Jones has spent her entire 15-year career on the CVCC unit at Methodist. She started while in nursing school and continued as a bedside nurse and shift coordinator over the next 11 years.

“I love that unit, and I love the people on it,” she said, “and at the end of the day I hope that’s what comes through.”

Apparently it does, or her team wouldn’t have nominated her.

When registered nurse Emily Meister read about the call for nominations to the Circle of Excellence, she knew she had to nominate her unit manager, she said. She asked others, including unit educator Jenny Baker and clinical nurse specialist Dawn Horvath, for help.

Meister said Jones is not only an expert nurse but one who consistently displays authentic leadership, deftly challenging the status quo.

“In three years, she transformed the unit to a top performer, demonstrating excellence in patient outcomes and staff satisfaction,” Meister said. “Her enthusiasm for patient care and her humbling yet executional management style and presence on the unit certainly never go unnoticed.”

Jones is passionate about patient care and ensures that her nurses are not only heard but are given the appropriate tools and education to deliver the best care among the diverse, acute patient populations the unit serves, Meister said.

“She absolutely deserves national recognition for her outstanding contributions toward nursing excellence,” Meister said.

The loyalty her team feels for her is no doubt inspired by her support for them.

Dr. David Roe, medical director of the CVCC, said he’s never seen a nurse manager more dedicated to and supportive of her staff, whether in training opportunities, patient care responsibilities or collaborative approaches to problem-solving.

“Jessica has shifted the culture of the cardiovascular critical care unit into one of constant vigilance for reduction of adverse patient events while maintaining consistent and exemplary levels of care for patients,” he said. “She has consistently demanded more educational opportunities from physicians for her nursing staff as well as advanced practitioners in the unit.”

Jones, who honed her leadership skills in high school as a camp counselor, president of student council and captain of her soccer team, believes in a team-led approach.

“I’ve always loved coaching,” she said, “and I try not to ever dictate things. If the team makes the decision, it’s going to mean a stronger implementation.”

She gives credit to excellent mentors she’s had along the way, as well as “good peers that give honest feedback.”

Though humbled by the award, she will accept it – as well as a Beacon Award – in Orlando next month on behalf of her entire team.

“I don’t think I do anything differently than anybody else, but the fact that they took the time to do this is pretty cool. That’s the most special part of it.”

The conference, which attracts about 7,000 critical care nurses from around the country, is like going to the playoffs, Jones said. It’s that same kind of super-charged energy.

“It reminds you why you do what you do. You get to see cutting-edge technology, you get to hear about the latest and greatest evidence-based practice,” she said. “The cool thing about being with IU Health is that a lot of times we are leading the way.”

One more thing about Jones. She has spearheaded a revamped approach to competency testing for the 120 nurses on the unit that puts the focus on learning in a fun yet competitive environment. The annual safety fair has a theme each year, complete with costumes, games and prizes. One year, it was a Las Vegas theme, last year it was based on the game Clue. This year’s fair, slated for the end of July, will have a Harry Potter theme.

– By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist

Email: mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Photo by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist

Email: mdickbernd@iuhealth.org