Benita Dallas-Meekins was on a work trip when she found out her life was ending.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency employee who lives in Owings Mills, she had been dispatched to North Carolina in October to assist with a hurricane recovery effort. An emergency visit to Duke University Hospital brought her a grim diagnosis: stage-four ovarian cancer.
“I was dead,” said Dallas-Meekins, 61. “It was terminal. There was nothing they could do.”
I was dead. There was nothing they could do.
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Eight months, six rounds of chemotherapy, and one surgery later, she strutted the runway with tears in her eyes and triumphantly whisked off her wig to reveal her shaved head onstage during a Cancer Survivors’ Day fashion show at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore Sunday.
“I am a miracle,” she said of her cancer’s remission, “and I’m not going to take it for granted.”
Leamond Meekins, who had rushed to his girlfriend’s side in her time of need and married her during her second day at the hospital in North Carolina, laughed as tears rolled down his face.
“There she is,” he thought to himself as he watched her smiling and modeling her resilience.
I am a miracle.
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Dallas-Meekins and this year’s other “Charm City Stars” fashion models — cancer survivors Jason Woods, Archie Soucek, Donald Andre Porter, Rovena Rolle-Nelson and Stacy Haynes, as well as Hopkins nurses Samantha Young and Amelia Meloeny — drew a sustained, standing ovation from a crowd of family members, hospital staff, patients and other spectators.
The annual fashion show, in its 27th year, recognizes cancer survivors and provides encouragement to those still battling a dire diagnosis, said Dr. Bill Nelson, director of the cancer center.
“Once someone hears those three words — ‘You have cancer’ — life is never the same,” Nelson said.
Barb Cavelius, the event’s keynote speaker, brought her service dog, Molly, onstage and told the story of her fight with multiple bouts of leukemia. After befriending Rhonda Cooper, the center’s chaplain, the retired art teacher began volunteering at the cancer center, bringing the Labradoodle around to greet patients.
“Live each day with hope and love in your heart,” she said. “We are the lucky ones.”
Live each day with hope and love in your heart. We are the lucky ones.
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The models — dressed by Gian Marco Menswear, Chickie & Co., Punch!, and the Image Recovery Centers — took the stage like they knew it.
Woods, a 39-year-old Northrop Grumman electrician who lives in Harford County, removed his leather jacket with a flourish and reversed it to show off the suede on the inside.
He recalled his initial confusion at his leukemia diagnosis.
“Where I lose my hair? I thought that was with kids only.”
The nurses remember him well. After all, not many other patients bring a 50-inch TV when they find out they’ll be staying in the unit for more than a month.
He was happy to repay their efforts by participating in the talent show.
“They had to deal with me for 36 days,” he said with a laugh.
Soucek, 77, stepped forward in a bright yellow jacket that he said “allows me to smile from the outside.”
The attorney from Middlesex County, Virginia, spent a year and a half at Hopkins after a mild dysplasia diagnosed in 2015 degenerated into leukemia and caused internal bleeding. When he and his wife pulled back into the Hopkins parking garage, he joked: “Home again, home again, jiggity jig.”
“I must give my applause to the nurses and staff,” he said. “They really get to be like family.”
Porter, 59, of Silver Spring, leaned stylishly on an umbrella in a white hat and a white linen jacket over a striped shirt with a pattern of blue flowers. Doctors told the Montgomery County Public Schools IT specialist that only 1% of the people with his type of Leiomyosarcoma diagnosis survive. He’s in his seventh year of recovery.
“They took a tumor out of my stomach the size of a watermelon,” he said. “I’m trying to be that 1%.”
Rolle-Nelson smiled and waved with both hands as she took the stage in a white dip-hem blouse and jeans.
The breast cancer had felt like a flat stone spreading just underneath her skin. Doctors said she wouldn’t make it through the week.
“I’m still here, praise be to God,” the 61-year-old Odenton woman said.
Haynes wore a gray jumpsuit with rips in the legs that showed off scars where cancer had caused the 48-year-old Reisterstown woman to have her femur removed and her knee reconstructed from her calf muscle and a tendon from a cadaver.
The former runner had to re-learn how to walk. But the experience inspired her 17-year-old daughter Zoe to apply to the Salisbury University School of Nursing.