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Friends and family draw near during woman's time of crisis


WHEN Mary Simmons of Ellicott City learned in March that she had breast cancer, the news of her illness triggered an outpouring of support among her family, friends, colleagues and neighbors. At a stage when a person can feel most isolated, Simmons has gained strength from the empathy of those around her.

"I feel like I'm being carried," Simmons said. "I never feel alone."

This is a new role for Simmons, whose optimism, understanding and humor have made her a person to whom others turn in times of difficulty.

"Mary's the one you want to call if something's gone wrong in your life," said Conni Gwynn, Simmons' eldest sister.

At the time of the diagnosis, Simmons was set to begin a nursing position at University of Maryland Medical Center. Her new colleagues took the initiative to ensure that Simmons's health benefits would begin immediately. They've also taken a personal interest in Simmons's well-being and have granted her a flexible part-time work schedule during her illness.

Simmons' treatment has included a mastectomy and chemotherapy. The chemotherapy began in June and will continue through December. At each stage of her struggle against cancer, Simmons has benefited from the emotional and practical support she has received.

"Mary's not the only one who has the problem," said Denise Kelehan, Simmons' sister-in-law. "We all share the problem."

Jeanne Kelehan, Simmons' mother, accompanies her daughter to each chemotherapy treatment. The camaraderie and laughter they share make the difficult experience more bearable for both women.

Sarah Henry bought her sister a personal compact disc player to listen to during the inevitable waiting involved in the treatment process. As a way of sharing time and a pleasant physical sensation, Henry recently painted her sister's toenails.

Gwynn offered her nursing support for two days and nights after Simmons' mastectomy. Gwynn, who assisted in the delivery of Simmons' three children, shares a special bond with her youngest sister.

"At the very least, I just wanted to be there with Mary when she was asleep, so she would never feel alone," Gwynn said.

On their annual beach trip, Simmons' mother, sisters and female friends had a hat party. The women each gave Simmons a hat that symbolized their unique relationship. Helen Miller helped her friend select a wig and insisted on paying for it. Thus, even the loss of hair during chemotherapy was something that Simmons did not face alone.

From her work as a nurse, Simmons had witnessed the tangible benefits of emotional support on the healing process. Now she is experiencing those benefits firsthand.

"People dealing with illness alone don't do as well," Simmons said. "Even little things matter. Cards, phone calls and meals mean so much to a person who is ill."

Like many of Mary Simmons' family members and friends, Joan Hite's first reaction to her friend's illness was disbelief.

"I couldn't believe it had happened to such a great family," Hite said. "I wanted to do something to help."

Acting on this desire, Hite organized a meal preparation schedule for the Simmons family. Every weekday night since May 1, a hot meal has arrived at the Simmons household between 5:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. More than 40 family members, friends and neighbors are involved in preparing and delivering the meals. Hite compiles monthly schedules to ensure balance and coverage. The meal deliveries will continue indefinitely.

"The biggest problem so far is that everybody wants to be on the list," said Suzy Simmons, Mary's 11-year-old daughter.

Just as Hite had intended, the meal deliveries have helped Simmons allow herself needed rest and have enabled the family to share the dinner hour with a minimum of stress.

"I'm very well fed," said Tom Simmons, Mary's husband. "It's so wonderful to have all the support."

While the advantages to the Simmons family are obvious, everyone involved agrees that the arrangement has reciprocal benefits.

"In helping Mary, it makes us all feel better," Denise Kelehan said.

Raiders and Patriots

As the Baltimore Orioles stumble toward the bottom of the American League standings, two Howard County Youth Program (HCYP) teams are showing good can still come from Maryland's ball fields.

The HCYP Raiders, a travel team for 10-year-old boys, recently won the American Amateur Baseball Congress North Atlantic Championship in Connecticut. The team competed over the weekend for the national title at the Willie Mays World Series tournament in Olive Branch, Miss.

The HCYP Patriots, a fast-pitch softball team for 15- and 16-year-old girls, took action to help an Ellicott City family in need. Since the accidental shooting death of their son Byrd Wichainaraphong in April, the Wichainaraphong family has suffered financial difficulties. To help the family, Patriots team members organized a concessions fund-raiser at a recent Wallace Park tournament.

"All the girls on the team knew Byrd," said Mike Lockett, the Patriots' coach. "This was their idea, something they wanted to do."

In support of the cause, Edy's donated ice cream and cones, and the 7-Eleven on Frederick Road in Ellicott City provided ice. The girls obtained all other supplies and operated the concession stand, raising $600 for the Wichainaraphong family.

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