Monday, February 11, 2008

Hat of Hope by Sherry Harbert

Shauna’s Hat of Hope

Like a miniature choreographed dance, Elizabeth Bwayo’s hands move a pair of knitting needles through a strand of yarn. She directs the blue and brown strands into a duet that spirals into a shape of a hat. It is a craft that reveals her talent and a practical way to raise money for medical bills.

One year ago Elizabeth, her husband Job Bwayo and AIDS volunteer Carol Briggs were caught in a carjacking outside Nairobi, Kenya. Their car was forced to stop by a brutal teenage gang. They opened fire, killing Bwayo, and gravely injuring Briggs and Elizabeth. Both women were shot in the face. Briggs also took a shot to her hand. Kenyan surgeon Eric Kahugu performed multiple operations on both women for over a month. By Easter, both women were in Portland, Briggs with her daughters and Elizabeth with her sister, Grace Kuto. Dr. Kahugu traveled to Portland to celebrate the holiday with his two patients and their families, who were all becoming friends. The relationships were of greatest importance to Elizabeth as she mourned the loss of her husband.

The violent incident robbed Elizabeth of her husband and the world of Bwayo’s renowned work in AIDS research. Bwayo, considered Kenya’s leading HIV researcher, earned global respect with his research on natural immunity to AIDS. He helped build the Kenya AIDS Vaccine Initiative (KAVI) with a team at the University of Nairobi. It is part of an international mission to develop an AIDS vaccine. Bwayo’s work focused on finding the key to immunity to generate a vaccine. By the time an individual develops AIDS, the virus has already attacked the immune system, leading each AIDS patient to a slow death. A small number of drugs, referred to as cocktails because of the combinations, can at best extend the patient’s life. But, there is no cure.

Surviving an Internal Attack

It would seem a most unlikely connection from AIDS to cancer. Yet each attacks and mutates cells to slowly kill a person. There is ongoing research and development of drugs and other medical treatments to prolong life. But again, no cure.

When Shauna Immel was told she had cancer, it had already advanced to stage four. Surgeons removed two huge tumors in a long protracted process to stop the cancer from spreading. They were so ugly, but Shauna was really proud to show them as she slipped in and out of sleep the day after her first surgery. They were, after all, no longer inside her. The next stage of treatment included hope as the fight began against the cancer.

Chemo treatment soon followed. Shauna’s doctors could not determine the source of the cancer, so they prescribed a treatment plan hoping to kill off the disease. Through the Monday sessions, diet overhaul and life changes, her family and friends would come together much as Elizabeth’s and Brigg’s families did for them.

The first round offered hope as Shauna began to regain her strength and her sparkle. It showed in her face and in her work. Like Elizabeth, Shauna creates beauty with her hands. Her tools include paper, glue and a camera. With each shot, she shares a special talent to capture moments of those around her that would otherwise be left for random recollection or fade from memory.

Scrapbooking is a way Shauna can keep each of those moments and thoughts to share with others—especially her children. Spencer and Kaelin may wonder why their mother would go to such lengths to document their lives, but those pages contain more than embellished photos. It is a way Shauna can share her thoughts and love. It has become even more important as she grapples with an uncertain future.

A Second Round

After the first round of chemo, Shauna’s future looked brighter. Everyone around her cheered at hearing the news that the cancer was in remission. Last summer, tiny signals re-emerged that the cancer was still there, still attacking her with its stealth-like tactics. Shauna’s doctors told her that they found “suspicious” fluids. The news was a blow to everyone, but it re-invigorated her family and friends to band together even stronger. Money was raised to send the entire family to Disneyland in September. Treatment was postponed until after the holidays. But, there were no more magical places to go to escape the disease.

Shauna’s doctors have yet to locate the source of the re-emerging cancer. Instead, their clinical assessment placed Shauna in the harshest chemo treatment in an attempt to stop it. It is physically difficult to go through the treatment, but more difficult to emotionally process it. This round appeared to treat one part of Shauna and not her as a person. As such, she didn’t emerge with the same fight and hope.

Yet hope has a way of happening. On December 1, an African Benefit Dinner was held at the Tigard Community Friends Church to raise funds for Elizabeth. Her sister and Briggs are members of the church. The event featured dinner, music, Kenyan artifacts and Elizabeth’s knitted creations. Family, friends and members of the local AIDS coalition listened to singing and violin music as dinner was served. Across the room, Elizabeth sat behind a table showcasing Kenyan soapstone and her knitted scarves, booties and hats.

Elizabeth had been shot in the mouth and even after numerous surgeries, eating was difficult. She spent the first months after the shooting getting her only nourishment through a feeding tube and more months on strained foods. Yet, Elizabeth wasn’t focused on food. She wanted to greet each person who attended the benefit to thank them.

Of all the beautiful knitted items, one hat stood out. Maybe because it was unlike the others or maybe the colors stood out. Either way, it was special. In a few days, I would understand why. I left with amazement at Elizabeth battling her loss and injury with the same grace and strength as her husband did in his work with AIDS. Elizabeth, in her ever gracious style, took my hand to thank me. I left with the hat and hope.

An Unexpected Connection

Shauna knew her hair would begin to fall out 14 days after the first session in this round of chemo. She managed through the week-long sickness, which is much like a very bad case of the flu. The physical side affects would then subside until the next treatment, but Shauna questioned if it was the right course to take. It was difficult to remain strong when treatment becomes a process, not a course of action.

Shauna struggled over whether she should continue the chemo round. Then, she heard about a program in Reno, Nevada, which used a German treatment that would battle the cancer and heal the person. It looked more promising and offered her a renewed sense of purpose. Her decision did not prevent the fact that her hair would fall out after the first chemo round. Wigs were not going to be an answer, so it was either going bald or hats.

A little more than a week after family and friends gathered for Elizabeth’s benefit, Shauna’s friends and family gathered for a hat party. Inside the festively-decorated home of close friend Paris Dukes, Shauna looked radiant. The guests reflected Shauna’s focuses in life—family, work and scrapbooking. Everyone gathered next to the Christmas tree with Shauna sitting in front of wrapped packages and paper tote bags. Each one was filled with a hat. She would open each one as the presenter of the hat would give her words of encouragement, share funny stories and describe the reason for the hat. Then Shauna would place the hat on her head and pose for a photo with the presenter.

When my turn came up, I was both excited and nervous, for inside the paper bag was Elizabeth’s hat. It represented more than head covering and more than a handmade gift. For me, this knitted hat represented strength and survival and now it would connect two beautiful women who both must battle to survive vicious attacks. The gun is just as ugly as a disease. One may quicken death, but both seek to destroy life. And too often we are helpless to protect against either.

When Shauna placed Elizabeth’s hat upon her head, I told her it was a hat of survival. It is a gift of hope from one artistic and graceful woman to another. I was merely fortunate enough to connect these two through a simple hat.

It’s the giving of one to another that knits us together.

By Sherry Harbert
January 19, 2008
p.s. I know Sherry from work. She's an editor at Hot Off the Press. She's a wonderful writer and photographer, as well as a friend. She is always upbeat, fun, funny and friendly. And she's a sharp dresser! She's got a great sense of humor and is wickedly talented. She's always very positive and loves to help when someone is in need. If you need anything, you go see Sherry. It's like her desk is a supply store. Got a headache? She's got something for that. Needs some chocolate? Tea? Coffee? Creamer? Vitamins? Crackers? Cheese? She's got that too. Need to know how to spell a word? She's got it all. She's always willing to share whatever she has. She's an amazing woman who writes amazing stories and I'm so honored to call her friend and to have her bless my blog. Thank you Sherry for a treasure of a hat that has so much meaning and spirit and hope.


Paris said...

What an amazing and well-written story...Sherry is such a talented gal. Talk about serendipity... you were meant to have such a powerful and hope-filled hat :) Love you, p

laura said...

what a beautiful story! she really is a talented writer. thanks for sharing that. (((hugs)))

Laura Nicholas said...

oh - that is so beautiful. And so very true. Sherry does always have what you need.. And this time it is a hat with so much hope. That is definitely becoming your word, girl!

I hope Spencer is feeling better.

My name is Shanna said...

Incredible and inspirational story and SO well written!!! Thanks for sharing with us, Sherry!!

Hugs to all,