An oasis for cancer patients' kin

The Baltimore Sun

Cheryl King's two daughters reacted differently two years ago when they learned that their mother had lymphoma. Ali, then 8, lashed out in anger. Maddie, 6, clung to her mother at every opportunity.

King, an Annapolis woman who struggled with the diagnosis herself, did not know where to turn.

"I didn't know how to make it better for them," said King, who has been in remission for the past year.

An Annapolis plastic surgeon is trying to create an oasis of support and advice for cancer patients such as King and their families.

Dr. Kelly Sullivan, medical director of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery of Annapolis, is launching a fundraising campaign next month to build a clubhouse of sorts where patients' families can relax while their relatives undergo chemotherapy or radiation at Anne Arundel Medical Center's Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Cancer Institute.

The Wellness House would provide support groups, coping seminars, yoga and other amenities to help ease stress. The house also would have space for families to spend the night.

Sullivan, who does reconstructive surgery on breast and skin cancer patients, is all too familiar with stories such as King's. She sees cancer patients throughout their recovery process if they require several reconstructive surgeries. Too often, she hears from parents who have to bring small children along to radiation and chemotherapy treatments, which can take anywhere from four to eight hours.

"They need a place where they could have more of a positive experience," Sullivan said. "It [the house] keeps the kids out of the hospital."

Michelle Bathras, a breast cancer patient of Sullivan's who is undergoing treatment for complications, worries that her four teenagers don't ask her questions or share their feelings because they want to put on a brave face. A neutral third party could help them vent without feeling like they are burdening their mother, said Bathras, who lives in Greensboro and drives 45 minutes to the cancer center.

"They don't want me worrying, but I don't want them worrying," she said.

The institute treated 745 new patients and 1,800 follow-up patients last year. A hospital spokeswoman declined to comment about the Wellness House, saying that officials there didn't know enough about the project,

Sullivan envisions a two-story Wellness House with a covered, wraparound porch where families could relax on rocking chairs. The home would have a library with computers for families to do Internet research, meeting rooms, a kitchen, a children's play area staffed by volunteer baby sitters and a garden for patients to sit and reflect.

Since Sullivan came up with the idea three years ago, she has been looking for property within five miles of the hospital. She thinks it would cost $1 million to renovate a property or build a new home. She is not sure how much more would need to be raised for an endowment to cover the estimated $400,000 in annual operating costs for the house.

Sullivan has identified two possible sites, a home at 1603 West St. that would require a zoning change and poses parking problems and vacant properties on Severn Grove Road near her office at 888 Bestgate Road. Sullivan wants to settle on a property by fall.

The Annapolis Rotary Club gave the nonprofit Annapolis Wellness Corp. a $5,000 grant to get started. Nine of the nonprofit's 11 board members, including Sullivan, are Rotarians.

Rich Wright, a fellow club member who joined the Wellness board, said the biggest obstacle is raising money.

The project has struck a chord with people, many of whom are willing to volunteer their services, he said.

"There's a lot of people interested in this project," said Wright, an attorney who did the paperwork to set up the nonprofit.

Shelley Sarmiento, an entrepreneur who owns Alister & Ruby Furniture, plans to donate furniture to Wellness House. She learned about the project a month ago, shortly after she lost a close friend to breast cancer. Sarmiento became a board member and agreed to host a private informational party for potential donors at her home on May 12.

"I think it was good karma," Sarmiento said. "I just jumped right in."

King became a board member after learning about the project from a friend. She had heard about similar wellness centers in Salisbury, and other cities, and hoped to start one in Annapolis after she had more time to recuperate. Her husband, Dennis King, has offered the services of his construction company, King Carpentry Contractors Inc. He will help with renovations or construction at cost, Cheryl King said.

King and her children plan to volunteer at the center. Her children are eager to give advice to other children, King said.

"They finally have a positive role in this," she said. "They kind of get to be 'the kid who's been through it' instead of 'the scared kid.'"

Information: e-mail annapoliswellnesshouse@

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