I stood next to Nancy Brinker and Debi Jarvis. The three of us were being honored by Breast Care of Washington, DC. I was profoundly humbled, wildly excited and miserably nervous.
Nancy Brinker, as the founder of Susan G. Komen, was recognized for her work in ‘pinking’ the world, bringing breast cancer and the need for screening into the forefront and turning a grassroots organization into a global force. Former television anchor, Debi Jarvis now Vice President of Pepco, was honored for her years of leading corporate giving and community service.
My inclusion was because of the role The Rose played during the beginning of Breast Care of Washington, DC. Some of you met its co-founders, Regina Hampton, M.D. and Beth Beck, when they came to Houston five years ago. The wanted to ‘see’ The Rose, learn about how it worked, spend time picking our brains and getting ideas for starting a place of their own.
“Don’t do it!” I told them. “This kind of non-profit is hard work. Today is a much different time than thirty years ago. There is too much need, not enough dollars, the politics are brutal. You will spend your entire life, every hour of the day, looking for the next donation. And, the prejudice to poverty is a battle you won’t win.”
But they left with stars in their eyes, intent on creating a Center that would care for every woman, regardless of her ability to pay. And they did. Now, after three years, they have served over 3,000 women and detected 30 cancers. Their statistics, like ours, show way too many of those diagnosed are young—50% were under the age of 50.
When Regina introduced me, she spoke of that visit and The Rose with such genuine affection and teased that she and Beth were now the Dixie and Dorothy of Washington, DC.
As I took to the podium, all the hours I’d spent preparing and practicing my ‘talk’ disappeared. There was nothing profound I had to say as a ‘Woman of Vision.’ I certainly had no words of advice to share with the 225 attendees.
I could only tell the stories of The Rose, the stories of our patients, and my employees.
I started by comparing their event to our first fundraiser, the Bachelors Auction. The crowd laughed when I said we ‘sold men’ to raise money for breast cancer screenings. In 1986, our venue, a partitioned section of the ballroom at the Hilton Hotel was a far cry from the space we were in now. We were in the penthouse, an entire floor that was dedicated to entertaining and education in one of the most impressive buildings in Washington, DC. I was stunned by the floor to ceiling windows, pristine open spaciousness and room after room layered in white marble. We were greeted with an unobstructed view of the Nation’s Capitol and from that height, every building and the entire street below us was bathed in the golden light of the setting sun.
Next, I told of Rose Kushner and her telling Dixie to “Quit her pissing and moaning and get off her duff! Go start a non-profit and take care of those women!”
I confessed to the crowd that neither of us knew anything about a non-profit but with Rose’s weekly goading somehow we did it. We secured the non-profit status, received a donation of a mammogram machine and The Rose opened its doors.
Then I moved to our patient stories, starting with Gere who stood in a phone booth, hoping she wouldn’t run out of quarters before she found someone who could help. She’d already had her surgery, but when learning she was uninsured, the oncologist had turned her away. He handed her chart back to her and said: “Go find another doctor. I can’t help you.” I heard the crowd gasp when I said Gere stood in that phone booth on a sweltering hot day and she still had her drains in.
Any woman in that room who’d ever had a mastectomy and remembered the discomfort of those drains, understood.
I talked of Ana and how she came to us after being misdiagnosed for months. Breast cancer wasn’t common in 30 year olds, she was told. The rash on her breast could be treated with antibiotics. She was too young for a mammogram but not for inflammatory breast cancer.
Ana became our best ambassador, always showing up, willing to talk to young women in spite of the demands of mothering two young children and the debilitating effects and toll on her body from the constant chemotherapy. Unfortunately, her time was short and at age 35, the cancer claimed her life.
But Ana’s story didn’t stop there. Enter her family- led by brother, Daniel, mother, father, sister, other brother, cousins, husband, children- all determined to keep her memory and her good work alive. They created 30 for Ana, a grueling 30 mile run that starts at M.D. Anderson, goes by the Hospice where she spent her last weeks, to The Rose, which diagnosed her, and ends at the cemetery and her grave. It is an amazing fundraiser that year after year has meant the money we needed to serve young women.
I looked over the audience and said I could share a thousand patient stories but there was one more story that I must tell them and it wasn’t about patients.
I almost didn’t make it to Washington, I explained. Only two weeks ago, my city of Houston and my home were devastated by Hurricane Harvey. I was grateful that The Rose and its fleet of mobile units had been spared and I wished I could report the same for my employees.
Of the 116 employees, 38 were directly impacted by the Hurricane. I was quick to add that everyone was impacted in some way. We walked through ours days still in a state of shock, trying to comprehend why so many lost their lives, why so much destruction. But those 38 had experienced the storm in a personal way and 12 had major losses.
“But they all showed up.” I said, “When the roads finally became passable again and we opened our doors, they all showed up! Some showed up wearing borrowed tee-shirts and pants, the only clothes they had. Some hitched rides with family or friends because their cars were washed away. Many had been evacuated, saying goodbye to their old life as they were rescued by boat. The waters rose so quickly, no one could have known or prepared. Some were staying in hotels, entire families in a couple rooms, knowing they would have to move to another place every three days. That’s the way it works after a disaster.”
I talked of my employees and their unimaginable generosity and caring. They knew we had weeks of appointments to make up and so many women who had waited and would need work-ups and biopsies.
They knew we had to get back to work.
They also knew that we can’t ‘fix’ what has happened. We can’t change the past weeks. Most of all, no one can bring back those lives that were lost.
But my employees showed up because they knew that there is one thing they can do, one thing they can change. They can make sure that no one has to die because she doesn’t have the money to pay for a mammogram.
They showed up and in doing so gave another woman, many other women, a chance to survive.
That’s the gift my employees give every day. Hope, life and caring; it’s their work and their mission.
I accepted the award on behalf of my employees and left the stage, feeling so proud and grateful. As I walked to my seat, I could not ignore the little voice that whispered to me: Maybe we need a lot more non-profits like The Rose after all.
If this inspired you to show up for the women of The Rose we invite you to give back at: http://www.therose.org/donate/