To many, Kim Tuzzolino is the face of the gift shop at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
She often functions as its heart, too.
Kim, a day care provider for 16 years and a self-effacing woman with five children and seven grandchildren, lights up when she talks about the young patients who come into the gift shop.
Many arrive in wheelchairs, toting along IV poles or other trappings of treatment.
Many people look away. Not Kim: She goes toward them.
Not long ago, she was one of them. Extensive treatment at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center hammered home what’s important in life.
‘Those dark moments’
What began as a bloated feeling in the stomach over the July Fourth holiday weekend in 2006 persisted through over-the-counter medications. The busy mom called her doctor.
Tests and more tests. Life went on during the wait for results.
Then the phone rang.
“I had six kids here when my doctor called and said, ‘You have cancer,’” she recalled as she sat next to Steve, her husband of more than 30 years.
Surrounded by bookshelves and family photos, the couple talked of another time. It seems like eons ago and yet also just like yesterday.
“My head was spinning,” Kim continued. “When Steve came home, I was a wreck. You always think of the worst scenarios.”
Steve took it the way he takes most everything: Calmly.
“Most people want to check my pulse,” he said with a chuckle. “Everybody thinks I’m too calm.”
Well, not everybody.
“He was the saving grace in all of this,” Kim said. “He was supportive and reassuring and my advocate. …When I would lie awake and wonder ‘what if I don’t survive,’ he would turn my head around.
“Everybody has those dark moments, and needs help,” she said simply.
Her internist set up an appointment for her with Mathew Chung, MD, FACS, section chief of surgical oncology for the Spectrum Health Medical Group, and a key member of the Spectrum Health Cancer Center.
“It was wonderful,” she recalled. “I didn’t have to search.”
Steve went on his own “fishing expedition,” determined to find the best possible care for Kim.
“When we got the diagnosis, I talked with people at cancer centers in Texas, Minneapolis, Cleveland and New York,” Steve recalled. “They all knew Dr. Chung. ‘You can come here, but you have the best up there,’ they told me.”
They carried expectations of minimal surgery to their first meeting with Dr. Chung, who described what they called the “mechanisms of a process” they weren’t prepared to hear.
Bonding as people
“We were in this little room that didn’t have windows,” Kim recalled, “and finally I couldn’t take it anymore,” and she left.
Returning a few minutes later, Kim apologized to Dr. Chung for her claustrophobia. Dr. Chung surprised her.
“He put his hand on my knee and he said, ‘I totally understand what you’re going through,” and he told her his wife was battling breast cancer.
“It was a turning point,” Kim recalled. “We weren’t just doctor and patient. That bonded us.”
Sitting in his office full of windows and light in the Spectrum Health Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion years later, Dr. Chung said he often tells patients about his wife’s cancer, which he diagnosed. His wife is well today.
“Then it’s personal,” he said. “If patients feel a connection to and trust their treating physician, I think they go through the process much easier than if they were anxious and distrustful.”
Kim sees such compassion as essential to healing.
“It takes the fear away and lets the body relax and heal,” she said.
She emphasized the importance of meaning something to those in whose hands we place our lives.
“I wanted to be me—mother, daughter wife. I didn’t want to be just a number or a case.”
A long-anticipated family vacation to Torch Lake had to be postponed.
That August, Kim had surgery, expected to last eight hours but went 12. Dr. Chung removed most of her esophagus. Biopsies during surgery showed lymph nodes were involved and that cancer had invaded her abdomen, which forced removal of a third of her stomach.
Technically known as gastroesophageal junction cancer, Dr. Chung said it is the fastest increasing gastrointestinal tract cancer in the United States.
Surgeons connected the stomach with the esophagus, then stitched and “glued” it all together like two pieces of fabric.
They got all the cancer, but because of lymph node involvement and cancer in the stomach, Dr. Chung told them Kim would need chemotherapy and radiation.
“It was a whole new level of urgency,” Steve said, noting that by then, urgency had almost become routine, and they moved forward.
Multispecialty team works unseen
At such times, when thoughtful, informed decisions are essential, overloaded brains often are unable to think clearly. Unbeknownst to the Tuzzolinos, a group of specialists formed at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center and smoothed the process for Kim.
“At the beginning, we were unaware there was a collaborative effort going on,” Steve said. “But someone lined up the individual specialists, and it was, ‘Here are your referrals.’”
Steve called it seamless and a sharp contrast to the experience of a friend going through cancer treatment elsewhere. There the patient has to negotiate all the specialties and disciplines on his own. “There is no quarterback,” Steve said, which leaves the patient all the more stressed and confused.
“I didn’t have to seek for anybody,” Kim said.
Those being diagnosed today often are seen in a Multispecialty Team Clinic, which serves cancer patients who need treatment from a number of specialists: surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists. Such cancers would include breast, colorectal, lung, melanoma, sarcoma, prostate, renal, bladder and brain.
Once diagnosed, such a patient is offered two different paths, explained Amy VanderWoude, MD, Kim’s medical oncologist.
Patients can choose the one-stop-shopping team meeting (in which they meet the team all at once, physicians review scans and pathology together and form a treatment plan) or decide instead to see a single physician who will be the point person for referrals.
“Different paths which offer the same excellent care,” Dr. VanderWoude said.
Kim chose to join a clinical trial. Following a study that indicated a combination of chemotherapy and radiation produced a higher cure rate, Kim’s trial tested one chemo regimen against another, Dr. Vander Woude said.
In December, another ugly development reared its head, and “we almost lost her,” Steve said.
A bacterial infection took advantage of Kim’s weakened immune system. She had to be hospitalized for three weeks, including some time in intensive care.
Doctors flooded her body with antibiotics as they pinpointed the cause of the infection. Her organs threatened to shut down, and Steve and Kim were advised to get her affairs in order.
At the time, daughter Ali was pregnant with her first child.
‘I needed to see my first granddaughter’
“They kept telling me to close my eyes and rest, but I said if I do, I won’t open them,” Kim said. “I was afraid I’d die. I needed to see my first granddaughter.”
She wasn’t about to leave this life without seeing the baby who would be named Camille, Cami for short. Today, Kim just calls her “my angel.”
The antibiotics did their stuff, and Kim “slowly climbed back,” Steve said.
“I’ve always known she has amazing inner strength,” he added. “She is very modest, but she is a strong representative for herself.”
The summer of 2007, a year after diagnosis, turned out to be extra special.
“We wanted to do something to celebrate Kim’s survival and our 30 years together,” Steve recalled.
The postponed family time at Torch Lake was back on track. They celebrated with a renewal of their marriage vows in view of the lake that gives new meaning to blue.
Listen to your body
Back home, Kim, a petite woman who has not gained back the 50 pounds she lost during treatment, talked about the lessons her cancer experience taught her.
If she had had the same initial symptoms at 30, “I probably would have ignored it,” Kim said.
If you feel something is not right in your body, “it’s better to check it out and it be nothing, rather than not checking it out and it being something,” said Steve.
“You ask questions and you go forward,” Kim added. “I’ve learned that every day is a gift, to smile more, touch more. It’s been a long time since I raised five kids and got so upset over small stuff. Now I save it for the big stuff.”
Nine years after diagnosis, gift shop visitors who feel Kim’s caring touch and hear her kind words have no idea the experience she brings to work every day.
They might be surprised to know that she draws strength from them.
“I look at these kids, and I think, ‘I can do this,'” she said.