Heidi Conn does not have cancer. What she has is a real and deep understanding of the importance of treating emotional health.
Conn will be one of thousands of people who will participate in next month’s Dempsey Challenge to support the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing. For her, the event is a true challenge.
An active woman who loves the outdoors, Conn fell ill in 2011 and became paralyzed from the chest down.
What she describes as a “horrible” condition immediately slowed her down and it wasn’t until she started physical therapy on a hand cycle at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital that she saw a way back to outdoor exploration.
Conn’s single-minded determination to overcome her personal physical limitations has inspired 28 Edward Little High School students and staff to join her on the hilly Dempsey Challenge course.
Conn, a guidance counselor at EL, rides a tricycle, a sleek low-to-the-ground road bike powered by her arms.
Over a lifetime of hiking, skiing, boating and motorcycling, Conn told the Sun Journal she “used to say the secret to not aging is to keep the wind in your face and your goggles on.” And, now, she says the closest she can come to that intense feeling of movement is riding her hand cycle.
Conn’s paralysis was sudden, the result of a complication from medicine she had been taking. She had hoped the condition would fade, but has slowly come to grips with her new reality.
She relies on the love and encouragement of family and friends as she continues to adjust to her paralysis, and has found great spirituality and joy in their support. She knows, more than most, how important emotional healing is to overall wellness.
That goal of emotional health is a significant focus of programs offered at the Dempsey Center in Lewiston.
The stated mission of the Dempsey Center is to “provide the highest quality of education, support and wellness services to enhance the quality of life of individuals, families and communities touched by cancer.”
The reality of the work being done there, though, is far greater.
And, it’s intensely personal.
It’s a place where children can get help coping with a parent’s death. Where patients learn how to navigate the terror of a cancer diagnosis. Where spouses feel safe to cry, and where parents can talk about the helplessness of witnessing a child’s pain.
It is a safe place for people to confront what may be the most frightening period of their lives, where they can lean on others for support and can learn to grieve.
Patrick and Mary Dempsey opened the Dempsey Center in March 2008 in honor of their mother, a retired high school secretary who has struggled with multiple bouts of cancer. The siblings hoped to create a place where the treatment of cancer patients’ emotional health was viewed with the same importance as physical well-being.
In its first full year of operation, the Dempsey Center provided more than 2,100 hours of free support and education to 6,854 people who either called or came into the center. Last year, the center provided 11,001 hours of support and education to 15,183 people.
That’s tremendous growth in three years, and proof the center is filling a true need.
That work couldn’t be done without the devotion of hundreds of volunteers or the generosity of donors who pay for the programs so participants don’t have to.
Last year, the center provided 165 free cancer screenings for patients who couldn’t afford them, and reached out to more than 2,500 teens and adults to provide education on cancer prevention and early detection. According to the center’s annual report, increased funding enabled the staff to offer 35 percent more educational programs in 2012 than in 2011, with nearly 1,200 people learning about nutrition, exercise and cancer prevention.
The center’s annual budget is just over $2 million, more than half of which is raised by participants in the annual Dempsey Challenge.
Conn and her team, the PT Red Eddies, had set out to raise $1,000. Instead, they have raised more than $5,000, closing in on being one of the top 10 fundraising teams. It’s an inspirational story of support, bolstered by Conn’s personal journey of strength.
This woman's engaging smile and her commitment to face life’s challenges offer a lesson in what is truly important: hope, love, support, compassion, guidance, acceptance and healing.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.