Media contact: Tom Hughes, 984-974-1151, Tom.Hughes@unchealth.unc.edu
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care
Jordan Sanderson’s father’s illness aged her — in a good way.
“I’m a fixer, always looking out for other people, helping them be their best,” said Jordan, 25. “But having a seriously ill parent is a child’s worst nightmare. I knew I couldn’t fix what was wrong with my Daddy, but I could be an advocate for him.”
Adam Sanderson, 54, a Newport, N.C., native and a 29-year lineman for Carteret-Craven Electric Company, hadn’t felt well for a while. A trip to his local hospital resulted in an immediate referral to UNC Hospitals, three hours away, on Feb. 15, 2013.
“I’ll never forget that day,” Jordan recalls. “We left immediately for Chapel Hill, neither of us having a clue about what lay ahead. But my Daddy has always emphasized the word ‘choice’ that we choose what to do, what to believe, how we handle what comes our way. We didn’t choose his illness — no one would — but I tried to remember and practice the right choices on the journey.”
Adam was admitted to UNC Hospitals and days of seemingly endless tests brought the blunt diagnosis: NK (Natural Killer) T-cell Lymphoma, a fast-growing blood cancer, rare in the United States but more common in Asia and Latin America. Typically, the aggressive cancer organizes in the lining of the nose or the upper airways.
“The doctors were straightforward, and it was clear we had to get right on this,” Adam said. “Chemotherapy, radiation, and hopefully, a stem-cell transplant, were all in my future, and the treatment would either cure me or kill me.”
“I just lost it,” Jordan said. “I was upset, angry, crying hard and loud, because I couldn’t fix or control the situation. His treatment plan was aggressive, and we knew we’d be in Chapel Hill for three months, for starters. I felt alone and lost at the prospect that this would be my life for however long.”
Jordan stayed with her father in the hospital until he was diagnosed. Then, she moved to SECU Family House, the 40-bedroom hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals that gave her the safe, affordable and supportive environment she needed to take care of herself so she could take care of her father.
“I was reclusive at first, and I spent most of my waking hours with my Dad, keeping a journal about his daily status, praying and talking to God,” Jordan said. “I read a daily devotional for us both, and I sang to him — everything from beach music to country music — to keep him alert and so he would know I was there. After about two weeks, I had dinner at Family House and began to realize the community around me.”
Within days, Jordan was connected to meal-time partners — some patients, some family members, all Family House guests — all sharing stories of their respective medical journeys, lessons learned for the days at hand and living life in general.
“We enjoyed wonderful meals provided by some incredible volunteers, who always seemed to serve my favorite things,” Jordan said. “We walked trails together. We shared rides to the hospital and grocery stores. We rented movies together and enjoyed entertainment at the House, especially when it was folk music, and we could sing along. We reached out to new guests because we knew what they were going through.”
At Family House, Jordan also reconnected with Pam Herndon, a volunteer with Team Harrison that provides dinners twice a month.
“I had met Jordan a year earlier at the beach through a friend of my daughter’s,” Pam said. “I remembered her as having a great personality with not a care in the world. Then, I next saw her at Family House with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Her father is her idol, her hero. There she was putting her own life on hold to take care of him.
“His illness accelerated Jordan’s growing up real fast,” Pam said. “I saw her twice, and it was obvious her priorities were in the right place. She was always there for other people, talking with guests, helping clean up the kitchen. She is such a giving person who expects nothing in return.”
Jordan was a Family House guest for seven weeks — including the 17 days while her father was in intensive care.
“They didn’t think I was going to make it,” Adam said. “While I’ve not seen any pictures — and don’t want to — I’m told I looked bad.”
Miraculously, Adam’s health stabilized enough for father and daughter to return to the salt air of their native Carteret County on April 29. Adam received a stem-cell transplant using his own cells in September 2013, but full remission was not realized until February 2014 after an additional five weeks of radiation for stray cancer cells in his nose. His latest routine check-up on Sept. 2 brought the good news: no evidence of disease. He’s been back at work part-time since July 1.
“I told the men where I work — and we all grew up together — ‘I don’t care how tough you are, when you get that kind of diagnosis and you come through it, you see the world and life in a whole new way,’” Adam said.
“I have always been a Tar Heel fan, and my sky is only Carolina blue. I have no regrets about what I went through in Chapel Hill. I was always treated like a king, and I enjoyed a good relationship with every person who was helping me get well.”
And it meant everything to Adam that Jordan was there with and for him.
“We had lots of bonding time, and we made the best of a bad situation,” he said. “We’ve been close from the day she was born, and she’s always been there for me. She was keenly interested in my course of treatment, the specific medications and their side effects. She asked a lot of questions, got good answers from my team and still searched the internet for more information to feed her own curiosity and to help me more. She pulled some graveyard shifts with me in the hospital, but then you know young people can do that. And she fell right in at Family House. I saw that myself when I stayed there weekdays during the five weeks of radiation earlier this year.”
“You will recall we had some fun weather then, with extreme cold and a lot of snow, even at the coast,” Jordan said, adding that the vagaries of weather and the need for additional radiation now seem like bumps in the road.
“Just before my Dad was referred to UNC Hospitals I had left my job as a bank teller to take care of him,” Jordan said. “If I hadn’t done that, I couldn’t have been there as primary caregiver in the way I wanted to be. God works in mysterious ways, and while I’ve always known things happen for a reason, and you meet the people you meet for a reason, I believe it without a doubt now. From there, it’s that choice thing again.”
Jordan’s latest life choice is enrolling in the health care business informatics curriculum at Nash Community College, a multidisciplinary program that prepares students for careers in the management, storage and retrieval of patient information.
“It’s the perfect fit for me given the journey of the past 18 months,” Jordan said. “It is both interesting and challenging, given that I was immersed in patient information night and day with my father. My studies give me the business point of view. I would hope that because I can see and understand both points of view there’s a good job waiting for me when I graduate in two years.
“In the interim and always, I choose to love God and thank him every day for my Daddy.”
To read more about the supportive environment of SECU Family House and the wisdom and encouragement Jordan received from a fellow guest, go to http://news.unchealthcare.org/news/2013/may/john-burnett-kindness-rules-the-day.