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Our Friend, Wendell

Update to the story: Wendell Miller passed away at the age of 73, on December 19, 2015. This story was originally published in the July/August 2015 issue of UpFront, an OhioHealth associate publication.

For 16 years, Wendell Miller has been an assistant softball coach for Bloom-Carroll High School in Carroll, Ohio.

On April 20, the school and community headed to the Lady Bulldog’s softball game like they would on any other Monday. But this wasn’t just any game.

The night was about supporting — and surprising — Wendell, an OhioHealth patient who is fighting Stage IV, inoperable esophageal cancer. The players dedicated the game to him, calling the night, “Win it for Wendell.” Both Bloom-Carroll and the opposing team wore T-shirts honoring Wendell and held fundraising activities to support the OhioHealth Foundation.

And, it wasn’t just the students, their families and the community that surprised Wendell. Many members of the OhioHealth cancer services team attended, as well.

Throughout the course of Wendell’s care, Mike Bianchi, system vice president of cancer services, was contacted by Wendell’s wife, Kathy, a middle school teacher at Bloom-Carroll. She wanted Mike to know that together, they developed a great rapport with Mark Crnkovich, MD, a radiation oncologist with Riverside Radiation Oncology, and Chris George, MD, oncologist, Columbus Oncology and Hematology. In fact, throughout many of her conversations with Mike, she explained that their entire OhioHealth care team — from their primary care physician, Jay Passias, MD, to their cardiologist, endocrinologist and radiation technicians — were overwhelmingly supportive, compassionate and helpful throughout their journey.

“They’re all so connected, and each and every one of them are about taking care of him. That was our goal — to receive compassionate care,” says Kathy. “I know I’m a patient,” says Wendell. “But, I don’t feel like a patient. My entire care team knows me as Wendell — the person, not Wendell — the patient. I feel like a friend.”

And that’s why Kathy called Mike to extend an invite to the surprise event for Wendell. She explained that for all OhioHealth had done to care for her husband, she wanted to give back. So she — along with several members of the school’s student council — worked behind-the-scenes to gather faculty, teachers and students, as well as members of the community, for a fundraising event to raise funds for the OhioHealth Foundation.

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Mike. “After I got off the phone with Kathy, I was blown away by the gratitude they are showing us. It is our honor to serve them, and here they are giving back to us! That’s just amazing.”

Mike knew he had to be there. And he wanted to bring Wendell’s care team along, too. Mike even reached out to Rachel Driskell, marketing manager for cancer services, to help pull together OhioHealth goodie bags to pass out at the event.

And so, on April 20, Mike, along with Jeff Bell, MD, medical director, cancer services, OhioHealth Riverside Methodist Hospital; Dr. Crnkovich, other members from Wendell’s OhioHealth care team and members from the cancer services team, showed up to support their patient, their friend.

One hour before game time, Wendell arrived and was surprised by the thunderous round of applause as he took his position in the first base-coaching box. Wendell was stunned — the applause and the game was all for him.

“I went over there thinking we were taking team pictures,” says Wendell. “Then all of a sudden, I see my wife and all of these players in T-shirts with my name on them. I realized right then and there that I had been had! I was dumbfounded.” One of Wendell’s former players even flew in from out-of-state to be there for the event.

“I was speechless — a rare thing for me to be,” laughs Wendell.

Events like Wendell’s made Mike realize that there is a lot of good coming from the work his team is doing. Cancer care — like any other disease — is very personal and along the way, meaningful and impactful relationships are formed.

“I realized that we care for our patients in our hospitals or in their homes, but at times, you can get so caught up in the day-to-day that you may lose sight of what our patients are going through,” says Mike.

“Cancer impacts every facet of their lives — their spouse and children, their family and friends. Sometimes we just see our patient, we don’t often get the chance to see how it impacts the world that surrounds them.”

"Our participation with the event was not at all about business. It was about rallying around our friend, Wendell,” says Mike.