The thing I love most about photographing people is having the opportunity to get to know my clients. Some of their stories serve as links to creating friendships and some, I believe, are meant to inspire.
Back in October of 2015, I received a call from Thelma Kidwell. She wanted to grant her daughter’s wish to have a family portrait session. So I came up with a package that was going to be presented on her birthday the following year. In our planning meetings, we would occasionally exchange personal stories. In Thelma’s case, it was her battle against Multiple Myeloma. A type of cancer that, while treatable, still has no cure. About 11,000 people in the U.S. die from it each year.
We did the shoot in May of 2016 and after the photo session, Thelma agreed to meet with me again so I can get in-depth with her story. On September 2nd, 2016, late afternoon, at her daughter’s house, I made my way to the backyard and saw Thelma for the first time since the family shoot. Her face was cheery and bright as always.
Thelma was born in Washington, DC in the 1940’s. She grew up in a working-class family with nine other siblings, during a time when moms generally stayed home and dads were the sole income earners. For thirty years, her dad worked three jobs… the DC schools, Amtrak, and as a security guard. They didn’t have a whole lot but they were close knit. “What we did have, we appreciated.”, Thelma says.
They went through financial troubles when her mother fell and broke her leg during pregnancy with her last child. Her oldest sister pitched in to raise her siblings while their mother recovered. Despite those hardships, everyone attended school.
She must have found my reaction funny when she said she got married at age 17. Thelma laughed, “If you didn’t get married (at a young age) you became an old maid.” She had her first child, Tammy, at 19 and then Danny five years later. She was in the process of adopting another child when she and her husband got divorced. It hurt her financially but she managed.
She spent the next several years as a single mother, building a career working at law firms as a records manager until she retired at age 65.
HEARING THE “C” WORD
What started out as persistent feeling of tiredness back in 2011 and passing it for seasonal allergies, developed into frequent hot and cold sweats and unexplained weight loss. She was initially diagnosed and treated for Pneumonia but her condition continued to worsen. She became anemic. Thelma was eventually referred to a hematologist/oncologist.
On February 2012, she got admitted for a bone marrow procedure. After hours of waiting her doctor came back bearing dire news… Thelma had cancer. At that point she was at 3rd stage of a disease called Multiple Myeloma. It is usually found in men, very rare in women and there is no cure.
Despite what seemed like a bomb going off that sent her family into shock, Thelma recalls not hearing the doctor’s announcement. She wasn’t sure though, if she just chose not to hear it. “Something else was going through my mind.”, she said.
FAITH, FAMILY AND THE WILL TO FIGHT
What does one do when faced with the question of one’s own mortality? For Thelma, it would be hanging onto faith, having her family’s support and not giving cancer an inch. This, I believe, is the core message of her story.
It took a while for Thelma to accept her new reality. But when it finally sunk in, she remembered breaking down and having a good cry. She vividly recalls praying “Lord, you heard what I heard, I need your help”. Then she heard a voice… “Why are you crying? You asked me to help you. I heard you and I’ll be with you”. Hearing that made the hairs on the back my neck stand on end.
Thelma also acknowledged the power of being with family and staying positive. Case in point,her sister, understandably distraught over the whole thing, became hysterical. So, she threatened to shun her and anybody that brought that kind of negativity. It was the last thing she needed. From that point on everyone got on board and Thelma got the kind of support she needed the most from her family. It gave her the strength to fight. It gave her the determination to live.
Over the course of that year she entered a stem cell program and saw two Multiple Myeloma experts at Johns Hopkins. Thelma recounts having a very rough time living in a facility for six to eight weeks. She graphically described her daily ordeals like getting injections through the stomach with medicine meant to make her body produce stem cells. She was hooked up to machines that may as well have come out of “Star Trek”. She lost most of her hair and suffered adverse side effects from her treatment. On better days, with a compromised immune system, she wore a mask when she went out in public.
After the stem cell treatment, Thelma signed up for an experimental drug program. Her cancer was kept at bay for some time and she would go on living a somewhat normal, medically managed life.
She knew going in that the stem cell treatment was a gamble. Should it fail, the cancer may come back with a vengeance. Unfortunately, their fears were realized when her levels started going up. She would be getting chemotherapy while trying to stay on the experimental drug program. “Trying” being the key word since staying in the drug program costs roughly $30,000 for a month’s supply of pills. If it weren’t for research grants, it would be impossible for Thelma to afford such a treatment.
WHAT’S IN STORE
Despite all the setbacks, Thelma remains unfazed. She is determined to continue her course no matter what. She will try to enjoy the time she is gifted with and spend it as much as possible with her family, especially her grandchildren and great grand kids.
When she asked her doctors how long she had to live, they told her, “… as long as you want to.” She feels very fortunate that she has made it this far and intends to go a lot further. She also wishes to give some of her time to causes or organizations such as the American Cancer Society, if she can find someone to drive her around, that is.
Thelma celebrated her 70th birthday in November last year.
March is Multiple Myeloma Awareness month. Learn more about the disease and donate to help fund research. Here are some links I came across when I was familiarizing myself with the disease.
Mario Gozum is a portrait photographer/retoucher and owner of PointShoot Photgraphy, based in Kent Island, MD, serving the custom portrait and general photography needs of residents in the following counties and cities:
QUEEN ANNE’S COUNTY│Centreville, Chester, Stevensville, Grasonville, Queenstown
ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY│Annapolis, Arnold, Crofton, Davidsonville, Fort Meade, Galesville, Glen Burnie, Harwood, Lake Shore, Lothian, Mayo, Millersville, Odenton, Pasadena, Riva, Severn, Severna Park, South Gate, South River
PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY│Bowie, Kettering, Lake Arbor, Mitchellville,Upper Marlboro
CALVERT COUNTY│Chesapeake Beach, Dunkirk, Owings
CAROLINE COUNTY│Odenton, Ridgely