Unexpected Journeys – Cristie’s Story
A joy of small-town USA living is knowing everyone ~ and a joy of social media for many of us has been reconnecting with friends and colleagues from past lives we’ve lived at a different time and place. Webbing through the strands of friends of friends, I’ve been able to reconnect with so many people and the subsequent memories ~ rekindling relationships the went dormant due to time, distance, and the busyness of day-to-day adulthood. Like picking up an cherished storybook, rekindling these friendships lost to the archives of time and adulthood is a solace our weary souls. There is a true sense of pleasure found in locating these childhood friends after thirty years have passed to see despite ourselves and our mistakes, we have all turned out pretty well. There are many joyous moments – learning of a second grade friend now married with six children of her own, another high school friend living out his dream as a musician, and hearing the day to day joys each of us are so blessed to share. There are also those moments of deep sorrow – the passing of your very first friend from Kindergarten, the tragic loss of classmates well before what we expect to be “their time”, and the illnesses that so many are battling on a daily basis. I read all of these posts with the roller-coaster of emotions they bring – always wishing there would be something more I could do to help
Reconnecting with past friends and acquaintances on Facebook has been a like opening windows to a lost world — lost to time and adulthood. There is something about stumbling on finds from our past that opens the flood gates of memories. One such acquaintance was Cristie Stuver.
I recall meeting Cristie in grade school when our local community schools consolidated into me large district building. With her blonde hair, friendly smile, and perky personality – she was I believe the most popular girl at school – – – you know, the one you always wanted to be like/be friends with. From third grade through entering high school, we shared many of the same classroom memories and shenanigans – from Mr. Bailey’s social studies class where we were forced to watch football videos every Friday to Mr.Lidinicce’s class to Home Ec, we traversed in the same universe of elementary and middle school until our roads diverged at high school with a few random sitings of each other after that.
With the popularity of social media, these memories came flooding back while learning how all of we all have grown into adults. Seeing us all as functioning adults, despite our goofy and odd teenage years, is mesmerizing – and proof that there is hope for everyone in this world! Cristie went on to have a beautiful family residing in the Carolinas, and still had that gorgeous blonde hair, friendly smile, and perky personality that shines in all her photos. And she went on to find ways to give back to her community. I recall following several of her posts in 2009 regarding blanket buddies. However, over the last year, I have been following Cristie’s story closely, and she has agreed to share it here with you as well:
May 9, 2017 was my Dad’s 75th birthday and the day my life changed forever.
Let me back up just a little. In September of 2016, I was working in a job that was incredibly stressful and unfortunately also provided a very toxic and unprofessional environment. After 17 years with this company, I was told my services were no longer needed. Just like that I was out of a job. I took six months off and spent time with my family, enjoyed volunteering, and of course job hunting. I had to find my “why” as Simon Sinek would say and find what inspired and motivated me. I found that why and soon began my new career and even had a fancy new title as VP of Innovation for a company based in San Diego.
I was attending my first company meeting in Carlsbad, California. On the very first day of the all company meeting, we did a behavioral training workshop. Several times during the workshop I felt nauseated and just not myself. Finally the nausea became overwhelming and I made several trips to the restroom. I remember several people checking on me and I really couldn’t explain what was wrong. The team took an early break for lunch and that’s really the last thing I remember.
I woke up with my feet and arms strapped down to a hospital bed in the ICU. I remember people asking me questions like … Do you know where you are? Can you tell me your name? Do you know what day it is? Do you remember anything that happened? I was so confused and all I knew is that I couldn’t move and my jaw hurt so bad. My husband Dave was sitting next to me and he had such sadness on his face. You see, we live in North Carolina so waking up in the ICU over 3000 miles away from home with him by my bedside was incredibly confusing. The ICU doctor explained I had a grand mal seizure at lunch and I was brought to the hospital by ambulance where I had a second grand mal seizure. I had no recollection of eating lunch, paramedics, ambulances, going to the ER, having two MRIs, a CAT scan or anything. They then explained that I was “combative” (their words…not mine) during the MRIs and they didn’t get a good picture and I would need another round of tests immediately. I kept asking the hospital staff what was wrong with me but all they would say is, “we’ll know more soon.” As I was being prepped for the MRI I begged my husband to tell me what was going on…all he said was “they think they found a mass in your brain.”
I don’t remember much more of that initial day. I remember seeing a lot of doctors and nurses coming in and out of the room running tests, checking vitals, etc. Finally, the neurosurgeon came to talk to Dave and I after reviewing the MRI results and confirmed there was a 5 cm mass on the left side of the frontal lobe of my brain. The mass pushed the corpus callosum enough to the right to cause the seizures. He advised that I would need a craniotomy as soon as possible to remove the mass. The surgeon gave me no guarantee. In fact, he explained the chances of him being able to remove all of the brain tumor were zero. But he would remove as much of the tumor as safely possible. We had some big decisions to make.
My brother is a doctor in Charlotte, NC and Dave called him immediately after receiving the news. He asked him his opinion and he agreed to research the neurosurgeon to see if we should have the surgery in California or travel back to NC. The chances of me having another seizure were incredibly high and I was unable to fly on a commercial airplane. My brother reported the neurosurgeon had a glowing review and he felt confident in his skills and ability to remove the tumor. So, after a long discussion with Dave, my brain surgery was scheduled for early the next morning.
Being continuously strapped down to your bed is not the most comfortable situation to be in. Needless to say I didn’t get much sleep that night. I remember around 6 AM the nurses coming in and prepping me for my surgery. Dave is able to walk down the hallway until we had to part – he gave me the biggest kiss and told me how much he loved me. I remember being scared and I remember one of the doctor assistants asking me if I was nervous. Of course I was nervous … I was getting ready to have brain surgery. Then, he took my hand and told me that he also went through the same operation removing a Glioblastoma from his left frontal lobe and actually had the same surgeon that was doing my surgery. That surgery was a little over eight years ago. In other words…he was a long-term survivor of a disease that doesn’t have that claim very often. Immediately, I felt this sense of comfort and knew at that very moment God was right by my side and I would be okay.
I spent the next few days in the ICU and unfortunately the series of events are a little blurry after my surgery. I do know that I had two black eyes, my head was wrapped with gauze and blood was seeping through. I was connected to plenty of machines monitoring my heart, my breathing, and all of my other vitals. I wasn’t allowed to get out of bed or even move without alarms going off. I was given a lot of pain medicine and even had a few hallucinations. Scripps hospital was one of the very best and I was so grateful to be there.
My two beautiful girls were on their way from North Carolina to California to visit me. I honestly couldn’t wait for them to get there and remember listening for the door asking my husband for updates and worrying about them making it across the country on their own. I don’t know what time they arrived…I know it was late and I know it was the best feeling in the world to have them with me right by my side. The next few days we cried, we laughed, we recalled wonderful memories and anxiously waited. We waited on the pathology report to understand if my brain tumor was cancerous. The next few days I saw a ton of Neurologists, Oncologists, Nurses, Physical Therapists, Counselors, Social Workers and had lots of visitors coming in and out of the room. The distraction was good as it allowed us to keep our minds off the reality we would soon face.
The day before my girls flight was scheduled to return them to North Carolina, one of the Neurologists stopped in for what we thought was just a routine visit. Instead, she said the pathology report was back and surprised we weren’t told of the results. She then simply announced to all of us “you have Stage 4 Brain Cancer”. From that moment on, our world changed forever.
When statistics show you have a 5% chance of surviving more than 7 months, you become full of crazy emotions. My husband and I spent 4 days at a resort in LaJolla, California. Watching the sunsets and talking through what we were going to do and how we would live life once we returned home. We needed this time to really comprehend what was happening to our world. We understood that our lives would never be the same again. I knew I could no longer work, drive, or be left alone. This was a life changing event for everyone.
I returned home to find my entire family in my driveway…balloons, signs, and so many hugs! My husband didn’t return to work for several months. We read every article we could find, reached out to other survivors, talked to experts in brain tumor research, and tried very hard to get ahead of my diagnosis. After all, I was told that these tumors double in size in two weeks. I was accepted as a patient of Dr Henry Friedman and Dr. Kathleen Peters both were working on a clinical trial for using the polio vaccine that is injected into the tumor site to spark the body’s immune system. Although only a small percentage of patients have received this treatment the results were so promising. I was excited to be accepted at Duke and I was immediately impressed with their level of care.
After a post-op MRI, I started a daily regimen of daily radiation and daily chemo at Duke for 7 weeks. Although the daily commute of 45 minutes was frustrating at times, I knew it was how I would survive. Every two weeks I have blood work done to check WBC count, etc. and every other month I had a full MRI to check the tumor site. I was told in the beginning that for the first six months the MRI scans would be not very clear due to swelling, etc. I have to say…waiting for the doctor to review the MRI is probably the most nerve racking experience I could ever experience and I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone. I find myself looking for signs … did she smile when she came in, did she make eye contact with me… trust me your mind races!
It’s been 10 months since my diagnosis…and I’m still fighting! I now take a high dose chemo regimen five days a week and will do that through August. I continue to have my blood drawn every 2 weeks and visit Dr. Peters monthly for consult and MRIs.
Duke has been amazing and we met so many compassionate people along the way. Our lives will never be the same and I will never be the same person as I was before. My relationship with God has grown stronger than I ever imagined. Things (just things) are no longer important to me. I realized I let my work define me…and it was all gone in a matter of moments. My relationship with my husband is the strongest – he continues to be my rock, my love, and truly my best friend. My relationships with my family and friends have grown and I just see life very differently. I appreciate life more and don’t take things for granted. My priorities in life have changed dramatically. I learned a lot (more than I wanted to) about Glioblastomas and the impact Stage 4 Brain Cancer has on a family. I know it sounds odd, but being diagnosed with terminal cancer has been a wonderful life lesson and one I am actually very grateful for. We have slowed down and take the time to make memories and realize how quickly life can change.
Even through this season of her life, Cristie continues to share herself selflessly – looking to raise awareness in hopes of helping others. May all of us be so blessed in our lives to touch so many people’s lives, and to make a markedly positive difference in those lives that we have touched.
If you would like to JOIN US in our support of Cristie Stuver Felix and her fight against brain cancer, please consider participating in our fundraiser. Fourteen dollars from each purchase will be donated directly to the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Research Center. Help join us in the fight to find a cure for brain cancer (on facebook – https://www.facebook.com/events/1991433191122271/ , or to order directly – https://goo.gl/forms/ukFLuoYUGBFQPDWl1 ). OR if you would like to donate to Cristie directly, go to https://www.gofundme.com/brain-tumor-battle-sister-cristie