EXCHANGE: Volunteers write cancer patients' life stories

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DIXON, Ill. (AP) — DIXON - There's an unassuming white binder on the end table at Home of Hope Cancer Wellness Center. It's a veritable treasure chest, the contents of which are as powerful as they are valuable.

In that binder, and countless others across the country, are Living History stories written about people battling cancer. Sheila Brune of Sterling, then about 30 years into her 45-year career as a registered nurse, created the program in 2000 while working as a director of case management at an Iowa hospital.

She'd eavesdrop on caretakers' conversations while looking over charts outside the room.

She uses the term conversations loosely.

"Caregivers didn't seem to always be real comfortable making conversation," Brune said. "They'd make small talk, or they'd even say things like, 'It's a beautiful day outside,' to someone who can't go outside."

They'd ask a widow if her husband would be coming by to visit. Or when children would be dropping by to check on a woman who never could have children.

And after cancer claimed lives, lives Brune thought she knew so well, she'd learn things from people's obituaries that she wished she could've spoken with them about.

"I never wanted to have that kind of remorse or regret again," she said.

So she created Living History, the gist of which is pretty simple: A story writer sits down with the patient, helps them fill out a questionnaire, and then writes the story, which is laminated and then can be used to build a bridge between the patient and the caretaker.

There is no cost for the patients or their family members to have their stories written.

The program's copyright will be valid 50 years after she's passed, Brune said. It's her legacy.

No doubt her son Joshua Blomgren, who's with Midwest Orthopedics at Rush University Medical Center, will continue to use it. So will students at Yale New Haven Health System, the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, as of January, the University of Notre Dame and, closer to home, the youth group at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Sterling. It's already in use at CGH Medical Center.

'This is me?'

The stories aren't just a tool for caretakers. In surviving the pain of cancer and, perhaps even harder, the mental hump, people can lose their sense of self.

Dixon resident Debra Ann Barth, 53, was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2014, and had her Living History written about a year ago.

She wondered what could be written about someone who was, in her words, "just a housewife." Dana Francis, one of four volunteer story writers, showed her.

"I enjoyed him so much," Barth said. "He knows how to pull out, and draw out, the most important stuff in your life: your values, what's most important to you - what makes you you."

Her story tells of her childhood, her hobbies and interests, but it focuses hard on her greatest passion: her family.

"I melted," she said. "It was really heartwarming. I thought, 'This is me? Wow.' It reflects what's important in my life: my family and my home."

It reminded her of all the wonderful things she has in her life, and that cancer can't take those things away.

"You have cancer, but it's a sidebar," Barth said. "It's not you. It shouldn't define you. You've got to grow from it."

But there's a brief editorial in the penultimate paragraph that goes beyond the questionnaire, and shows that Francis truly got to know Barth. He wrote:

"She possesses amazing inner strength and wisdom and seems well-grounded in who she is and what is important in life."

"And wasn't that moving?" Barth said. "Wasn't that beautifully done? It chokes you up."

No experience necessary

Brune calls herself an English major wannabe, but says she had no previous writing jobs before creating Living History.

Yet, for Home of Hope, she's the volunteer copy chief, even writing most of the stories herself. Her staff sends her the story, she cleans it up and adds clip art.

"You don't have to be a literary genius," she said.

The font on her husband Sam's story is small, and the art includes the Army logo, a picture of a tractor harvesting crops, wedding bands and a image of a smiling sun with the text I LOVE MY GRANDKIDS.

Sam is going through his second round of radiation, and one sleepless night, she got up to finally write his Living History and gave it to him in the morning. She uses it as an example when she trains Sacred Heart youth group members how to write the stories, and then pairs them up with older members of the congregation.

"It's very enriching for young people," Brune said. "They learn a lot about compassion, and how to open doors to conversation."

She's got many projects ahead of her. She and Sam are in the process of moving into a duplex in Sterling. She's got a 5-week-old grandson to spoil.

But her eyes narrow when she talks about getting the Living History program into VA hospitals.

"Since the beginning of time, I've been wanting it in the VA hospitals, but making anything happen at the VA is impossible," she said.

She finally broke through at the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines.

One down, 150 to go.


Source: Sauk Valley Media,


Information from: Dixon Telegraph,

This is an AP-Illinois Exchange story offered by the Sauk Valley Media.

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