Perseverance Story: Barbara Brundage

Over the course of four weeks, members of the community will be sharing their story.  These stories are about individuals and their experience with cancer. They are the reason the Lowell community comes together for the Pink Arrow Football Game.  Each story is written by the person you will read about or by someone on their behalf. We thank them for sharing their story and courage.

If you are interested in helping out at Community Day (Thursday, Aug. 16) or game day (Thursday, Aug. 30) please contact Heather Eveland by calling 616-291-8907 or send an email to Heather.Eveland@gmail.com.  Heather will let you or your group know what help is needed to determine the best fit.  

The following story is from Barbara Brundage, told in her own words, who writes about her husband’s journey with cancer and how Gilda’s Club has and continues to help her.  

All of us who have experienced the death of a spouse, child, sibling, parent, or other loved one have found ourselves in a “club” we never wanted to join.  But the grief support group at Gilda’s Club offers an oasis in what sometimes feels like an ocean of grief – an intentional community of compassion, understanding, and healing.

I first went to Gilda’s Club in the fall of 2016, with my husband, Max Aud.  He had been diagnosed with brain cancer (primary central nervous system B-cell lymphoma) in June 2016, after nearly 6 months of various treatments for what was originally thought to be autoimmune encephalitis (the “Brain on Fire” illness).

We had just moved to Michigan from Southern Illinois in September 2015, so Max could take over as the federal mediator for the Grand Rapids area.  After looking at several locations and school systems, we chose the Lowell area, so our youngest daughter could start high school here.  The job and school transitions went better than we could have imagined.  Then everything turned upside down.

Max’s symptoms began suddenly around January 1, 2016, when he rapidly lost his short-term memory and became disoriented as to place and time.  During the next 4 months, he underwent a battery of tests and was hospitalized several times for treatments.  We would see some improvement, but then more symptoms would come up.  We made a trip to the Mayo Clinic in April for more tests, consultations, and a treatment plan.  Soon after we returned, he began a hospital stay that would last over 3 months.  When his MRI in June showed the affected area of his brain was growing in spite of the treatment, a brain biopsy was done that revealed the cancer.

Max immediately started chemotherapy, and through intensive inpatient and then outpatient rehabilitation, he had an amazing recovery from the point of being unable to walk or speak intelligibly, to regaining his ability to express himself verbally, to walk and even jog a little.  Throughout that time, as well as his earlier time in the hospital, we had so much love and support from family, some of whom came from their homes far away for extended stays.  We were able to trade shifts in the hospital to be with him, and once he was back home, he needed to have somebody nearby at all times for safety, as well as to engage him in ongoing rehab work.

In a meeting in August with the rehab coordinator to discuss goals and plans, Max said he would like to spend time with other people who were going through what he was dealing with, and try to help.  That was so Max – in every aspect of his life and work, he focused on making things better for others.  So that’s when we looked into the programs at Gilda’s Club.

At that time, Max’s brother Ken was staying with us full time, to help care for Max and continue his rehab work one-on-one.  The three of us went to the orientation meeting at Gilda’s Club in Lowell, and started attending the cancer support group.  What a wonderful group of people – so welcoming and encouraging.  Sharing about what we were all going through, whether current or past treatment, being a caregiver or a person with cancer, was a great support.  Even though Max was still having serious symptoms of disorientation and memory impairment, he was focused and engaged with the discussions, and the group meetings were very meaningful for him.  Along with participating in the cancer group at Lowell, we (mostly Max and Ken) started attending yoga and exercise groups at the Grand Rapids Gilda’s Club.  Every day, if we didn’t have Max in outpatient rehabilitation, Ken would take him to one or more of the programs at Gilda’s, or to the gym.  All those activities helped Max get stronger, and kept him focused on recovery – and just as important, helped his caregivers keep fit and healthy.

Into September 2016, the roller-coaster began again.  Test results led our oncologist to send us back to the Mayo Clinic for more evaluation, and we returned with a new chemotherapy plan.  During the new treatment, some of Max’s gains held steady, but he gradually started having more visual impairment and balance problems over the next months.  At the end of December it became clear that the chemotherapy was having no further effect on the cancer.  We enrolled him in hospice care at home.  Family and friends came again to be together and spend time with Max during the times that he was awake, which were dwindling.  On January 13, 2017, just after sunrise, Max departed his earthly body.  We had 35 years together.  I miss him every day.

As all of us who loved Max have moved into this new reality of living without him, the people at Gilda’s Club have been an enormous source of support – truly a lifesaver.  Before Max’s brother and sister-in-law returned to their home (they had been staying with us for several months to help care for Max), we all participated in the cancer group in Lowell, and transitioned to attending the grief support group.  I continue to participate in that group nearly every week.  Without my companions at Gilda’s on this journey, I don’t know what I would have done.  They get it.  Whatever any of us may be feeling, somebody has been there.  Talking with each other brings understanding, compassion, new insights, tears, laughter, and healing.  Some of us found our way to Gilda’s shortly after our loss; some started coming months or even years later.  All are welcome.  There’s no judgment, and no timeline on this grief journey.  We don’t “get over” the loss of someone dear to us, but we keep living our lives, and the circle of friends and supporters at Gilda’s helps immeasurably.

I’m so thankful to have landed in this community of Lowell, and am so grateful for the strong community support for Gilda’s Club – from the volunteers who provide meals and help with programs, to all those who contribute financially and otherwise to Gilda’s and Pink Arrow.  You make a difference!

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