Like all basic research, cautions Prescott, these projects face countless hurdles before they could reach hospitals and clinics. Even if everything plays out as the scientists hope, it will be years before a treatment reached patients. Unfortunately, that will be too late to help Debbie Ocker.
ON TUESDAY NOVEMBER 10, after experiencing “tingly” sensations in her jaw and chin, Ocker had an MRI. “That’s when they discovered the cancer had spread to the cranial fluid surrounding my brain,” she says.
Doctors told her that without treatment, her life expectancy was three months at best. Treatment might add another few months. But treatment would entail brain surgery followed by intensive rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Ocker did not want her life to end that way.
The next day, Ocker told her students and colleagues the news. Her last day of work would be Friday, November 13.
There were a lot of tears that day. And in the days that followed. But there was also a tremendous outpouring of love. Ocker was flooded with flowers, gifts, cards, emails and letters from students and former students, parents and faculty. On her last day, there was a party. Four hundred people showed up. They donated $1,200 in her honor to OMRF through the Putnam City Cancer Drive. And, for the most part, they obeyed two rules that Ocker had made a condition of the celebration: no sad speeches and no crybabies. “My message has always been about living with cancer, not dying from it,” she says.
She woke up around 3:00 the next morning. When she switched on her light, she saw the stacks of cards that her Putnam City family had given her the previous day. With the swirl of events, she’d not yet had time to read them. So she picked up the stack, tore open that first envelope and began to read.
The cards told Ocker of the love she’d spread and the lives she’d impacted. They thanked her and told her they loved her. They volunteered to do whatever they could to help her. They sent prayers and blessings and love.
Before she knew it, in those wee hours, Ocker had read hundreds of cards. It was, she says, “the most amazing gift I have ever received.”
SHE’D SAID GOOD-BYE to her students, her colleagues. She’d retired from her job of 22 years and given away most of her belongings. Then for two or three days at a time she wouldn’t leave the house, wouldn’t even take off her pajamas. Her life as she’d known it, she realized, was over.
Yet there Ocker still was.
She decided to pay a visit to her sister in Chicago. There was a nice guest room on the main floor of her home. She could stay as long as she wanted. And her sister had even set up a studio where Ocker could do one of her favorite things: quilt.
Maybe it was doing something she loved. Or the distraction from her condition. Or perhaps it was the feeling of once again being productive, of being, well, alive. But whatever it was, the quilting helped Ocker reconnect with the world. As she did, other little pieces of normalcy began to return. She started taking a shower every morning, getting dressed. She even began putting on makeup again.
A few weeks before Thanksgiving, her doctor had given her three months to live. But February 10 came and went without incident.
Not long ago, she decided to send another letter to her friends. To let them know about her current situation. And that she was, in her words, “still kicking.”
She continues to stay with her sister. Although she isn’t in any pain, her vision has begun to fail. And getting around has become a challenge; she’s using a walker and has a wheelchair on order.
Yet each morning she rises before dawn, she makes a breakfast of frittatas and fruit, then drives to her “office,” the quilting studio. There, she keeps her sewing machine, fabrics and a felt board where she hangs fabric cut-outs. A couple of weeks ago, her sister bought her a futon so she can take mid-afternoon naps. So far, she’s made at least a dozen quilts, and she has plans for more.
Still, Ocker is clear-eyed about her future. “I don’t know how much time I will have on this earth.” But she’s grateful for the life she’s enjoyed and for these last, extra months. “I don’t have a place big enough to hold my blessings.”
Most of all, she hopes her students will remember all she tried to teach them. Challenge yourselves. Have faith that you can achieve your goals. And always tell it like it is, no sugar-coating.
On May 18, as this issue went to press, Debbie Ocker died.