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Susie’s Wish: Toes in the Sand One Last Time

Once, maybe twice, in a lifetime you find a friend who just gets you. The kind of friend you’d see in a romantic comedy. The kind of friend you can call at 2 a.m. without feeling guilty. That’s the way it was for Georgina Chapman and Susie Edwards. The two women met in 2001 when they were working in the same WAFF 48 newsroom and bonded over a half-heritage—Susie’s mother was Thai and Georgina is half Chinese.

Their friendship grew—as did their careers—when Georgina went on to work at AEgis Technologies, and Susie got a new job as a reporter in New Orleans, Georgina’s hometown. It worked out great because they could travel back and forth to visit family and see each other at the same time—Georgina’s family was in New Orleans and Susie’s family was in a small town outside of Gadsden.

Devastating News

Susie told Georgina she didn’t feel well—that she had aches and pains. She ended up in the emergency room one night because her stomach hurt so bad.

“That’s when they pressed down on her stomach, and I think at that point they just knew,” Georgina said. “The doctor ran out of the room and said, ‘We have to get you into a cat scan right away.’ “

The scan results were devastating. Susie had an avocado-sized tumor on the left lobe of her liver and five to six smaller tumors on the right lobe. And they were cancerous.

Although she was an only child, divorced with no children, Susie had a core group of friends to help her through her battle. They researched different treatment options and found a specialist group in Houston.

Doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston tried a new way of treating her cancer—they injected radioactive beads into her liver. But eight months after her diagnosis, doctors said the cancer had spread to her lungs.

Susie’s prognosis was dim, with a four-to-six month life expectancy. Doctors knew her only chance was a more experimental type of chemo that could only be done in Boston.

“At the end of July, 2010, they realized it wasn’t working and the tumors were growing again,” Georgina said. “The ones in her lungs, at one point they said there were hundreds, … it was another hard reality that experimental chemo was our last hope.”

Susie had to go to Boston one to two times a month—a hefty financial responsibility even with her health insurance. She had to pay for hotel rooms, cabs, eating out in an expensive city and everything that goes with travel. Her friends were taking turns getting her to the treatments by running up credit cards to cover the costs.

“It wasn’t even a matter of, ‘We don’t have the money,’ ” Georgina said. “It was, ‘We just have to get her there. We just do.’ ”

Mr. Efficient

The week Susie got her diagnosis was Georgina’s first week at AEgis Technologies. At the time, Georgina was trying to hold it together. She was a new employee at a highly reputable Huntsville company, but there were some emotions she couldn’t keep inside.

Georgina credits her supervisor for the grace she got during that period of phone calls, travel plans and even the occasional breakdown at her desk.

One day, Steve Hill, founder and CEO of AEgis Technologies, came into her office and offered a new solution.

“All I think Steve knew of me … was, here’s this person we just hired, and we have all this work and all these projects, and she’s constantly working and dealing with this friend who has cancer,” Georgina said.

He asked her how she was paying for the trips. At the time, one of Susie’s friends was considering pawning her engagement ring to pay for the next trip, and Georgina was looking at yet another maxed-out credit card.

Although Steve had never met Susie, he offered a plan to help. Steve offered his Sky Miles to pay for the next few trips, and he offered to pay for Susie’s additional healthcare when her company-paid plan ended.

You have to meet Steve to understand his brand of kindness. He’s soft spoken, choosing to take action whenever he sees a problem that can be fixed. As the father of three deaf children, Steve has helped countless families navigate through doctor’s appointments and paperwork needed to get other hard-of-hearing children the help they need.

Georgina describes him as Mr. Efficient because he gets things done.

“He sees a need, and if he knows there’s a way to solve it, then yes, he is absolutely connecting A to B to C,” Georgina said. “His heart is very wrapped up with philanthropy.  … That’s where his heart goes real soft.”

The Last Trip

Steve only got to send Susie to Boston once before doctors told her to go home and think about calling hospice. She had already moved back to Alabama to be near family.

By November, 2010, Susie told her friends she wanted to go to the beach one more time. She wanted one last adventure. Scheduling the trip between chemo treatments and family commitments was tricky, and her friends had jobs and families to work around. Then there was the problem of finding a beach tropical enough to enjoy in December.

Still, Susie had a good sense of humor, even at the end.

“Susie was like, ‘I’m such a pain in the ass. Of course I choose to basically be dying in the dead of winter when you can’t even take me somewhere that’s warm,’ ” Georgina said.

But friends and colleagues had a plan—a sign-up sheet that read, “Pay for Susie to get to the beach.” Someone donated a house in Cozumel, Mexico. Another person paid for their airline tickets.. The trip was set for the first part of December, and they were all ready to go.

But.

The night before the flight, Susie was rushed to the hospital for an emergency blood transfusion. Doctors told her she wasn’t strong enough to fly out right then, so Susie told her friends to go on. She would meet them in Mexico the next day.

That never happened. Susie went home for one more day of rest, but she died that night.

Her friends were waiting for her in Mexico.

“(Leaving her) was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Georgina said.

Saying Goodbye

There were only 14 months between Susie’s diagnosis and her death. Fourteen months to fight, to prepare for the worst and pray for the best. Fourteen months to say goodbye.

“They say that grief is like standing at the shore, and the water is at your feet and ankles,” Georgina said. “The grief is always there. Some days the wave just comes and hits you a little bit harder. That’s what they describe grief like, and for the rest of your life, that’s how it will feel. Some days I’m like, ‘I’ll be fine,’ and then other days we realize, ‘Gosh, we lost her.’ ”

The funeral was on New Year’s Eve. Georgina suspects Susie’s mother just wanted the terrible year to end, but the holiday made it harder for Georgina.

“I think I hated the idea of rushing it, but more than rushing it, I think I hated the idea that it was New Year’s Eve, and people were celebrating, and I was essentially saying goodbye to the love of my life,” Georgina said.

Susie’s Wish

After her death, Susie’s friends were reeling with questions about what to do after spending 14 months deep in research and planning. Once things slowed down and the shock wore off, Georgina decided to start Susie’s Wish, a nonprofit devoted to sending people with life threatening illnesses to the beach with their families.

They weren’t going to let anyone else miss the chance to see the ocean one more time.

“You get so focused on getting them the treatments, traveling them to everywhere they need to go, you forget to slow down and say, ‘This may be the only day we have to get them there,’ ” Georgina said. “It will haunt me the rest of my life that we weren’t able to take her to the beach. It will haunt me that I left her. I think that’s why Susie’s wish had to happen. Every single patient that we send, to me, is sending Susie. I didn’t get to send her, so I will send other people.”

Since its inception, Susie’s Wish has sent 14 patients to the beach. Three more will go this fall.

“If somebody had come to us and said, ‘Here’s a week, here’s this condo, here’s the keys, here’s the money to do it, go,’ we would have gone,” Georgina said. “That’s why we want to do this for other people.”

Right now, Susie’s Wish needs donated condos or time shares, but Georgina notes time of year is not important. If you’re interested in donating space or money to Susie’s Wish, check out their website  or Facebook.

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