Unimaginable sorrow in Melissa Turner’s life led her to be unimaginably kind to health care heroes.
Melissa has been coping with Stage IV lung cancer since 2018.
By chance, at a fundraising event just before the pandemic began, Melissa met Dr. Marc Moss, a pulmonologist and critical care doctor at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
Moss and his colleagues have worked on the front lines of the pandemic. They tend to the sickest patients who need care in special COVID-19 Intensive Care Units (ICUs).
In December 2020, Melissa reached out to Moss to see how she could lift his team’s spirits and say thank you for their heroic efforts.
Melissa offered to bring treats to Moss and the ICU team. She also started bringing special cookies, breads, candies and kind notes to her cancer team.
“I wanted to say thanks to the ICU team and to my lung cancer team, who were keeping me alive,” Melissa said.
Shortly thereafter, Melissa’s sister was admitted to an ICU in Los Angeles for COVID-19 and later passed away from the virus in January 2021. She was just 61.
Melissa’s kindness to health care heroes in Colorado became even more poignant after the tragic loss of her sister. While the California team could not save her sister, who also had Addison’s disease, nurses and doctors spent hours talking to Melissa and put the phone to her sister’s ear so she could hear her voice. Melissa felt all the more motivated to keep the treats coming. And the UCHealth doctors and nurses were in awe of the kindness that sprang from both a lung cancer journey and personal loss.
Now, Melissa has been bringing goodies and kind notes to UCHealth teams every two to three weeks for more than two years whenever she comes for treatments at the University of Colorado Cancer Center on the Anschutz Medical Campus.
During a recent infusion appointment, Melissa’s care team decided to turn the tables and do something kind for her.
So, they organized a tea party.
Before the pandemic, Melissa often brought friends and shared tea with them during her infusion appointments.
The gatherings had to stop because of visitor restrictions.
Even so, no matter how poorly Melissa has felt, she has continued to bring treats.
When Melissa arrived for an infusion appointment in early December of last year, she walked into a small treatment room and was stunned to find a group of nurses and doctors who created a celebration for her.
They decorated the room. A comfy blanket and a backpack full of goodies sat on the hospital bed. A cheery tray of tea wrapped in spiffy yellow boxes greeted her.
Treats lifted the spirits of weary health care workers
The nurses and doctors who have received Melissa’s gifts all have been deeply touched.
“The treats are a blessing that lifts spirits and keeps people going,” said Olivia Thornton, a nurse manager who used to head COVID-19 ICUs at University of Colorado Hospital and now oversees UCHealth’s virtual health center.
Moss connected Melissa with Thornton to receive the treats when he wasn’t available.
Over the years, Thornton and coworkers have been awestruck that Melissa is dealing with her own health challenges and a family tragedy, yet still takes time to show her appreciation for ICU staffers she had never met.
And she didn’t just bring the treats once or twice. She’s kept the goodies coming for more than two years.
“As the pandemic went on, things got harder for those working at the bedside,” Thornton said.
Yet, every couple of weeks, treats from Melissa would arrive and hospital workers felt the love, Thornton said.
Tea party gratitude
When Melissa walked in to find a surprise tea party, she was shocked and felt like a VIP.
“You took my breath away in a good way,” she told a room full of caregivers at the cancer center.
“I was having a hard time. I was feeling low-energy today, and the thought of doing an infusion again was tough. Thank you.”
After the team threw the party for Melissa, she, of course, returned for her next infusion treatment with more extra-special treats.
Back in September, Melissa had taken a trip to Boston. She wanted to bring the medical providers salt water taffy, but it was out of season. Who knew? So instead, she found fun, red gummy lobsters. They were such a hit with ICU nurses that Melissa called the specialty grocery store in Massachusetts where she had found the candy crustaceans. She asked if they could ship her more for the UCHealth team, and they obliged.
She also has a friend who has been baking bread to support the Ukrainian people. That, too, has been popular, so Melissa has continued bringing it.
“It’s just fun to be creative and bring back treats from wherever I go,” Melissa said.
She and her husband, Jim Turner, also got to celebrate a special family milestone recently. Their two daughters both were pregnant at the same time and had their babies within seven hours of one other days before Christmas. In addition to their 2-year-old grandson, Sam, Melissa and Jim now have a new granddaughter, Rose, and a grandson, Max.
The joy of being grandparents again reminded Melissa that even amidst tragedy, life delivers beautiful moments.
A terrible diagnosis of lung cancer; a wonderful team and support group
Melissa first learned that she had lung cancer back in 2018. She had never smoked, but still faced a frightening prognosis since her cancer already had spread.
A cousin of Melissa’s in Washington, D.C. put her in touch with an endocrinologist who recommended a Colorado lung cancer expert, Dr. Ross Camidge. At the time, Melissa was getting care elsewhere.
Camidge’s team reached out almost immediately. Melissa nearly skipped returning the call.
“I was ignoring him,” Melissa said with a laugh.
Little did she know that Camidge is one of the top lung cancer experts in the world and that innovations in cancer care and treatments have dramatically prolonged life for people like Melissa.
Finally, she decided to see Camidge for what she thought would be a quick, 15-minute second opinion. Instead, she spent hours with Camidge, who recommended a clinical trial.
“That’s why I’m still alive,” Melissa said.
Staying alive to bring kindness to others, visit Africa and welcome new grandbabies
Camidge and his team have tried to help Melissa stay one step ahead of her cancer. (She is also a breast cancer survivor.) The clinical trial drugs, which included one immunotherapy medication and two chemotherapy drugs, worked for her. But it wasn’t working for everyone on the trial, so the drug company canceled the trial. Camidge duplicated the therapies for Melissa, and has continued to modify her treatments over the years.
The time she has gained has allowed Melissa and her husband to fulfill big dreams.
“We got to go to South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania in April of 2019. We timed the trip around my treatments. Going there was a dream of mine since I was really little,” Melissa said.
Becoming grandparents has brought great joy too.
Jim Turner said his wife has a gift of bringing joy wherever she goes.
“She’s amazingly positive with everyone we meet. She’s got a ton of great friends. We’ve been married going on 39 years,” Jim said.
Facing health challenges has been difficult, of course, but lung cancer also clarifies the meaning of life.
“I would not choose to be here,” Melissa says of enduring chemotherapy infusions.
“But, I would choose to be here,” she says, gesturing to a team of health care workers who all appreciate her deeply.
“She reminds us why we went into health care,” said Traci Priebe, an ICU nurse who has loved Melissa’s treats and helped throw the tea party.
Said Priebe to Melissa: “By being the person you are, through your kindness and compassion, you make us better health care providers.”