Creating unforgettable moments for cancer patients
The first thing Mary Siebe sees when she wakes up each morning is the sports memorabilia on her bedroom wall.
Each piece inspires uplifting memories: a framed Colorado State University basketball jersey that says “Siebe,” a photo of a professional hockey player wearing a helmet with her name on it and an autographed hat from the Colorado Eagles.
Siebe, 71, has terminal cancer. When she went to an exercise class one day at UCHealth Cancer Center – Harmony Campus in Fort Collins, she didn’t expect it would lead to her being honored at sporting events in front of thousands of people. But as she waited for the class to begin, oncology services manager Kathleen Michie was walking by, stopped and asked Siebe if she had a minute to chat.
“I remember the emotion,” Siebe said. “She just grabbed me with that energy and those smiling eyes that crackled with excitement.”
Soon, Michie was showing her a framed Colorado State basketball jersey with a UCHealth patient’s name on it. She explained to Siebe how, on one special game night, the athletes swap out their names and instead wear the names of people battling cancer. Michie wanted Siebe to participate.
“I humbly accepted, from the standpoint that while there may only be 18 patients featured on jerseys, I firmly believe that I represented all the people who had cancer,” Siebe said.
Another patient was on his way to a radiation appointment when Michie stopped to talk with him.
“She’s just a dear, dear person, and I think anyone who meets her realizes that very quickly,” said Clay Drake, 54, who has incurable cancer. That day, Michie handed him an inspirational bracelet reading, “Live your dash.”
“On your tombstone, there’s a born date and date when you pass away,” Drake said. “The point is, you have a life that you need to live between those dates.”
Michie, who has been at UCHealth for 33 years, started as a physical therapist. In the mid-1990s, she became a massage therapist through a continuing education program. She went through special training to offer massages to patients with cancer and since then, the program expanded to provide over 22,000 massages to cancer patients.
“At the cancer center, we have always focused on taking care of the whole person,” Michie said. “You’re not cancer, you’re not a diagnosis, you’re a whole person.”
Michie now connects patients with a variety of services depending on what might make the most difference. It could be a massage, yoga or acupuncture – or it could be an opportunity to be honored at a sports event.
“She is exactly the type of colleague that you know will do her absolute best and go to the ends of the Earth for her patients,” said Bill Smith, UCHealth marketing manager.
The jersey name-swapping “Bigger than Basketball” program with CSU started in 2020 and required substantial coordination. This was a new, unusual way to honor people with cancer and spread awareness, and it was important to identify patients who would benefit, Smith said.
Both Siebe and Drake were among patients honored at these games, which became an annual tradition for both women’s and men’s teams. For Siebe, there was “nothing better to remind me of hope and things to be excited about,” she said. When the basketball player who wore her jersey graduated, Siebe sent a note to let her know how much her participation meant to her.
“Good things happen. They happen every day,” Siebe said. “Just to have these things pop out of nowhere was so validating and exciting. Something to look forward to and be able to be involved in – it was humbling to feel that again.”
Michie is an inspiration to many of the people she meets. She was the first to receive a UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital Grateful Patient pin in 2008. The pin represents a patient or family member’s donation to the UCHealth Northern Colorado Foundation in recognition of an employee who provides outstanding care, and the money goes toward support for patients and the community.
Michie has received over a dozen pins since then, acknowledging the ways she makes a difference. For example, she received her second pin in July 2008 after calling to check on someone after they’d returned home, then bringing them pillows to provide support.
“She relates with patients and families in a very personal and genuine supportive way,” said Lyndsey Hertz, donor relations coordinator with the foundation. “Recently, I witnessed Kathleen stop what she was in the middle of doing, and take the time to hold a patient’s hand and listen intently to their needs.”
Cancer hits home
Michie’s service to patients continues as cancer affects her own family. Her mother, Mary Yocum, died in summer 2021 after battling cancer. Her husband, Kevin, is fighting brain cancer.
In November, the Colorado Avalanche surprised Kathleen and Kevin Michie with a meet-and-greet with players who signed their jerseys ahead of the annual Hockey Fights Cancer game at Ball Arena in Denver, where they were both honored among health care staff and cancer warriors.
In a letter of gratitude to those involved, she reflected on the hundreds of patients she’d seen honored at both Colorado Avalanche and Colorado Eagles games.
“My parents have always LOVED joining me at the Eagles game and beamed with pride,” Michie said. “The past few weeks I have cried myself to sleep thinking of this year’s game on November 13th attending a ‘Hockey Fights Cancer’ game for the first time without them. Hope comes in the morning, the gift that Kevin is still ALIVE and winning his battle with brain cancer.”
Kevin keeps a Hockey Fights Cancer puck from one of the games next to his glasses at home. Kathleen said that after the experience, she knows firsthand what an impact it can make to create positive memories during tough times.
“She’s a heartfelt person, she’s very caring,” Drake said. “She puts it right out there for you to see.”