Maggie Spence said that when her mother, Dorchelle, was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, it took awhile for her to gather the strength to attend chemotherapy sessions with her.
“I couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her in a weaker position than me,” Maggie, 16, admitted.
But when the Lausanne Collegiate School student finally went to the sessions with her mother at West Cancer Center Midtown, Maggie still didn’t see her as much as she did the people who were around her; people who were shivering from infusions of chemo drugs being pumped into their bodies.
“When I went, I noticed my mom was one of few with blankets, and I noticed people covering up with sweaters, and with shirts, and with their arms. They looked really uncomfortable — and I was cold!” Maggie said.
So, instead of solely taking comfort in the fact that her mother was blanketed, Maggie took discomfort in the fact that so many others weren’t.
That discomfort led her to persuade her best friend and classmate, Naiya Nolan-Dillard, 17, to join her in raising $1,200 to buy 100 yards of material for 25 fleece blankets. It further led the girls to organize volunteers at their school to make the blankets.
“I thought it was an amazing idea, and I jumped on it right away,” Naiya said.
They finished them in two months — and recently donated them to the cancer clinic.
Keri Burnette, a West spokeswoman, said blankets are always needed.
While the center’s WINGS Supportive Care Division gives new chemotherapy patients blankets when they start treatment, it relies on donations from people like Maggie and her school friends, as well as others, to provide them.
That means that blankets aren’t available for everyone.
“We’ve received some funding to begin purchasing blankets, and we only have blankets currently at three locations,” Burnette said. “But what makes it (chemo) so cold is the treatment itself because the fluid going through the body is not warmed up…
“It doesn’t necessarily come out of a refrigerator, but fluids going through your body are cold in general, and if people aren’t feeling well they’re going to be cold. That’s why the blankets are so important for our patients.”
Although Maggie and Naiya will also get to claim community service credits for the blanket project — something that is required for them at their school — it still took a gift of empathy and observation to develop a project that filled a need few people realized existed.
And neither girl lacks a giving spirit.
“My granddaughter, when she was 3 and 4 and 5 (years old), she would come to my house and while everybody’s mingling and talking, she would find stuff to wrap up in tissue paper, and she would give you a gift,” said Mozell Edwards, Naiya’s grandmother.
“And you would open it, and you would have to say, ‘That’s so nice!’ And then she would give you a kiss, and that would melt you. She’s always been a giving person.”
And does Dorchelle Spence feel like an afterthought in all this?
She said that after her diagnosis, she decided to face the cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and is now gone, with dignity and strength. It was that strength, she said, that she wanted Maggie to absorb.
“I decided I would be positive and creative, no matter what came,” she said. “I was going to be positive and courageous in dealing with it, and I let Maggie know that I was going to be OK, and she was going to be OK, no matter what happened.”
Part of her being OK meant sharing in Maggie’s passion to create the blankets. Dorchelle even supervised some of the work, which took up six hours on Saturdays.
And maybe what helped in her recovery, in addition to her Christian faith and a supportive husband, was the realization that she raised a daughter with a compassionate spirit that helped her see her mother’s struggle not as a reason to shut her eyes to the suffering of others, but as an inspiration to help alleviate it.
“Maggie’s a happy person, and she wants to see other people happy,” her mother said. “Both she and Naiya have that kind of emotional intelligence and empathy, and it’s amazing.”
Amazing enough to not only warm the bodies of people battling cancer, but the hearts of everyone else