April 02, 2020
Special employee helped my dad mark radiation therapy finish during coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic
BY Lori Baker
Completing cancer treatment is a big deal. Frequently, it’s celebrated through a bell ringing ceremony with family and care team members. But things were a little different when my dad, Ken, finished radiation therapy at MD Anderson West Houston for his pancreatic cancer recently.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, neither my sister nor I could be with him during treatment. As an MD Anderson employee, I understand why MD Anderson has temporarily stopped allowing visitors to its campuses – it protects my dad, the other cancer patients and our care teams. Still, we would have loved to celebrate this milestone with him.
Thankfully, a very caring radiation therapist named Karrie Bellard helped mark the occasion in a particularly meaningful and personal way.
Immediate connection between runners
My dad wore a Houston marathon finisher T-shirt during the first of his five radiation treatments. He completed four marathons several years ago.
“Karrie noticed and told me she was a distance runner and we started sharing stories of grueling long-run training and the highs of finishing races,” my dad tells me. “Runners have common experiences that quickly create a bond.”
“We became instant friends,” says Karrie, who, in 2009, decided she needed to get active, and as a result lost 50 pounds and became an accomplished endurance athlete.
Their connection proved beneficial to my dad, who is a rectal cancer survivor and now also battles Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), which causes scarring of the lungs.
“Ken had a particularly long, tough treatment where he had to hold his breath, which is tough for someone on oxygen,” says Karrie. “He did what he needed to like a champ!”
My dad credits Karrie and fellow radiation therapist Lacy Perry with helping him get through the treatments. “They were so understanding and encouraging. The support helped even more because I had connected with Karrie on a personal level as a fellow runner. I considered her my ‘coach’ during the treatment, and she inspired me to push myself the same way you need to on a long run,” my dad says.
Meaningful gift from one finisher to another
My dad continued to wear a different race finisher T-shirt for each treatment. “On day three, I knew what I should do for him when he completed treatment,” says Karrie.
Each person who completes a major race receives a finisher medal. Karrie decided it was a fitting tribute to give to a fellow distance runner a finisher medal when he completed an especially tough treatment race. She selected one of hers – the 2020 Katy half marathon – and brought it with her to my dad’s final treatment.
“I may have been more excited to give it to him than I hoped he would be to receive it,” Karrie tells me. She wore one of her finisher T-shirts under her scrubs on his final day of treatment.
My dad was so touched, but tried to give it back. “It doesn’t matter if you have 200 finisher medals, every one of them reflects your training commitment and is significant, so I thought she should have it back. The gesture was enough for me,” he says.
But Karrie told him that he had done the hard work and finished, so he’d earned it.
She had many medals from which to choose. She has completed many marathons and in times fast enough to qualify several times for the Boston Marathon, which she has run twice. During her early efforts to get fit, she also biked. A friend suggested she add in swimming and to compete in triathlons. She did and her times were good enough that she qualified for the world championship. She competed in the Kona IRONMAN in 2016.
Committed to our cancer patients
Modest about her success, Karrie says: “I’m not a superstar, I just keep going.”
She says the training helps her manage stress, clear her mind and rejuvenate her to give her best to her patients every day. It’s something she has done since she joined MD Anderson in 1998, after earning her radiation technology degree from our School of Health Professions.
“I try to think of each patient as a family member and treat them how I would want a member of my family to be treated,” Karrie tells me. “It’s how all of us treat our patients. Our team is really incredible, made up of very special people.”
Facing cancer is so tough, and loved ones want to do everything they can to help. It means so much that the members of my dad’s care team feel the same way – that they want to do all they can for him. Karrie proved that and her thoughtfulness was so touching.
Small things make a big difference
Small acts of kindness are something Karrie has always given to others. But she considers these more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our patients, who already go through so much, are going through so much more right now,” she says. “Those caring for them also are going through a lot. So doing whatever we can to extend kindness to others doesn’t cost us, but can mean so much to the person receiving it.”
That was certainly true for my dad.
“Those who have come alongside me in my battles against cancer have provided such meaningful support,” my dad says. “Karrie is now a member of those special people in my life.”
Learn about MD Anderson’s COVID-19 response and precautions we’re taking to protect our patients and workforce members.
On day three, I knew what I should do for him when he completed treatment.