“She treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.” — Charlie Vandebyl
Charlie Vandebyl met Sister Sue Tracy the first time he visited Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids after brain surgery.
Diagnosed in 2012 with lung cancer which metastasized into the brain, he underwent brain surgery and radiation, and later, surgery for the lung cancer.
“I walked in (to Gilda’s Club about 5 o’clock one evening, and first person I met was Sister Sue … I don’t think I even had the staples out of my head.
“ ‘That’s a pretty fancy zipper you’ve got going on up there,’ she says and gives me a big hug.”
No lock on that zipper
He told her she was the second person to tell him that:
He’d stayed at his son’s house after surgery, and the morning after he got there, his 7-year-old grandson wandered into the bathroom.
“I was trying to get cleaned up, I had matted hair with blood on it.
‘He looks at me with the most sincere look on his face and says, ‘Grandpa, did those doctors put in a zipper???’ ”
Sue hooted and told him he needed to get up on stage that evening and tell that story — it would make people laugh.
Drafted on first
“My first foray to Gilda’s, my first meeting with Sister Sue, my first experience with public speaking … I thought it very bold of her, but it turned out it just part of the norm of her.
“It’s such a loss to lose someone like that, but the memories you have of her just pick you up and move you along.
“If someone like that can do all she’s done, the people she’s touched and given hope… “That’s what I look back on and draw from whenever I’m having a bad day.
“Every time I saw her, it was such a blessing to me. Knowing what she’s been through and all the cancers, she just exudes hopes. She has no idea the effect she had on people.”
Present tense even though the Dominican Sister Grand Rapids died a year ago?
“She’s still here with us and she watches us all the time. I know she does.
“I wonder if, when we start to slow down or falter or lose hope, if she might give us one of the kickstarts we need and we don’t even know it.”
He continues to pay the lessons forward regularly as a Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids volunteer, and as an example of possibilities.
“She showed you that you could be living with cancer, not dying with cancer.
I think she treated cancer like a speed bump: You slow down for awhile, do what you have to do, then move on.”
His cancer status now
He is running 5 Ks, does spin class twice a week, lift weights 3 days a week; and swims a mile 3 days a week.
After surgery to remove the entire upper lobe of his right lung, “They told me, ‘There are a lot of things you won’t be able to do because of limited lung capacity.’
“But a therapist told me, ‘if you get into heavy exercise you can hyperextend the middle and lower lobe to take over. ‘
“I still have some breathing issues — especially when I start exercising, but pulmonary function tests show I’m almost average for a person my age not missing any lobes.”
Scratch that age thing: “I don’t use my age: Just say I’m a Level 63.
“ A lot of my life involves forced effort to breathe.
“ Sister Sue would say, ‘Be thankful for every breath’ — and I am.”