"We Survived Cancer Together"
Patients: Pat and Charles Burrage
Charles and Pat Burrage, known as Poppi and Nani to their four grandchildren and Brandon, MS. community, had shared a lot in their nearly 50 years of marriage, including a birthday – August 16.
But they never expected to share simultaneous diagnoses of cancer in the spring of 2009.
“When your dad's diagnosed with cancer on April 14, and they come and tell you on April 24 that your mom's got cancer, that pretty much rocks your world,” said Jon, the Burrage's son.
But, in Pat's words, “God's got a plan,” and part of that plan was St. Dominic's and hematologist and oncologist, Dr. Guangzhi Qu.
How It All Began
Charles discovery of his leukemia began with a routine checkup from his family doctor. There were some irregularities in his blood, and he was sent to get a bone marrow test. Charles found himself in the office of Dr. Qu, whom Pat had visited before for her anemia. Dr. Qu told him the grim news: he had two months to live without treatment.
Barbara Sanders, the Burrage's daughter, said she received the devastating news while working at her monogramming store in Ridgeland. “I bawled for an hour when I heard,” she said. “Fortunately, no customers came in.”
“They told us we could go to Houston (to MD Anderson), but why do you want to be away from home when you're that sick?,” Pat said.
The family decided to stay at St. Dominic's and begin treatment immediately. They are glad they did.
Soon after Charles' diagnosis, Charles, Pat and Barbara found themselves back in Dr. Qu's office with more bad news. Pat had been feeling tired and visited Dr. Qu for blood work. After performing a sonogram, he discovered she had a cancerous ovarian tumor.
Barbara recalled Dr. Qu breaking the news to the family: “This is very bad and doesn't ever happen – two parents being diagnosed within a week or two. You have a large ovarian tumor, and you'll have to have surgery immediately, and you'll have chemo.”
Pat's response was: “Let's get started.”
Barbara recalls the family was “shell-shocked” and remembers the phone call to her brother Jon, who was out shopping.
“Are you sitting down?” she asked.
“Do I need to be?” Jon asked.
“Yeah, you do,” she said.
Charles in the meantime was getting blood transfusions twice a week and platelets once a week.
The Turning Point
But amid the shock of facing two parents with cancer, the Burrage family found comfort from the straightforward and compassionate staff at St. Dominic's.
Barbara, our nurse navigator, “is the one who really made us more at ease, because she sat down with us in the lobby and told us exactly what to expect. She told us what Daddy would be going through, what side effects he may or may not have. She laid it all out as to what we had coming,” Barbara said.
The next day Charles was diagnosed with pneumonia. He started chemotherapy the day after.
“We jumped in quicker than we had expected, but Dr. Qu, Barbara and the other nurses made it easier for us,” Barbara said.
Pat's surgery went well. Her gynecologic oncologist, Dr. Paul Seago, gave the good news that the cancer from her tumor had not spread to the rest of her body. However, she soon experienced a wound infection.
By June both Charles and Pat were having difficulty with their chemotherapy treatments and were placed on the same floor of St. Dominic's Cancer Center but on opposite wings. They couldn't see each other because of the risk of infection. Jon and Barbara “tag-teamed,” trading days and nights with their parents, and helping the two of them communicate.
“This thing was harder for them than it was for us,” Pat said. “Every nurse we had experience with was awesome. They care.”
“Barbara (our nurse navigator) also came to visit. You could never tell when she might pop in the room and just sit for an hour,” Jon said. “At one point she told me, we have your mamma under control. You need to go and see about your daddy.'”
Pat was experiencing a severe reaction to her treatment, while Charles' chemotherapy was not working as well as the doctor wanted. “We were told we were looking at days or weeks for him,” Pat said. The family made a tough decision to try a new kind of chemo, which Charles would have a 50% chance of surviving.
The two improved. Dr. Qu was able to adjust Charles' medication so he could attend a family vacation to the mountains, which at the time the family feared could be his last.
Charles has been in remission since January 2010, and Pat is cancer-free. In July the family was planning another trip to the mountains and looking forward to more.
Recovery and Life After Cancer
St. Dominic’s Compassionate Staff Makes the Difference
Pat describes the St. Dominic's nursing staff as “kind of like family.”
“I think to this day that if one of us went up to the fifth floor, they would recognize us and speak,” Barbara said. “Dr. Seago even gave us his cell phone number and told us to call him. That says everything to me. They care enough about us – and not just the patients but the families also.”
Dr. Paul Seago is one of four gynecologic oncologists who practice in Mississippi and specialize in women's cancer care. He removed Pat’s tumor and supervised subsequent cancer treatment.
“The best thing about St. Dominic's is the culture of caring. I thing it starts with the Sisters. They impart their Christian ministry of healing philosophy on all the hospital staff. We're going to do the right thing for our patients because this is who we are. We're going to serve others. It translates into everything.”
“A perfect example is that on weekends I’ll frequently see Sister Dorothea walking the halls. If she sees a gum wrapper on the floor, she stops and picks it up. She doesn't call someone else to do it. That attitude is pervasive,” Charles said.
Dr. Seago said Pat Burrage's case was unusual in that her husband had received a severe diagnosis such a short time earlier. Pat had problems along the way that were not unexpected, but “She was a trooper.”
Dr. Guangzhi Qu has practiced hematology and oncology at St. Dominic’s since 2004 and “plans to stay there a long time,” he said. Dr. Qu, who diagnosed both of the Barrages’ and supervised Charles’ chemotherapy, said St. Dominic’s is unique because the hospital “provides a team approach and puts patient interests first.”
“I feel like I tap dance to work every day,” Dr. Qu said. “I love to practice medicine and help people.”
Just as with the Barrages’, Dr. Qu has a strong faith, and he values working in a hospital with a Christian ministry of healing:
“Our practice is a Christian ministry. I feel like I’m serving Jesus with my work.”
St. Dominic's gave us hope.