Inside a metal structure in the Clement community, one that is far more impressive on the interior than one might think just passing by, Julia McPhail cuts and irons yards upon yards of complementary fabrics before stitching them together. Even as her own time on this earth runs down, McPhail is toiling away at her sewing machine in an effort to impart hope to others.
On April 1, 2015, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. It was inoperable, non-small cell cancer, too close to her heart for an operation, doctors told her.
“They said it was terminal,” she said. “The doctor at Duke said I had two and a half years and it’s been a year and I’m still wide open. I’m not slowing down. This keeps me busy.”
She is sewing handbags that other lung cancer patients can use to hold important items or implements to pass the time during chemotherapy — the kind of things that have proven useful to McPhail. She takes them to Health Pavilion North in Fayetteville, a part of the Cape Fear Valley Health System, where she receives her own chemo just 18 miles from her home on Carroll Store Road, Autryville.
“I decided to make reversible bags with a few gifts that I know I needed during chemo,” she stated. “I can do eight or 10 in a day if I was really working on them. Sometimes I take 20 bags at a time.”
Among the items she places in each handmade bag are a book of word puzzles and a pencil, Kleenex, some hard candy, hand sanitizer, a soft toothbrush and lip balm.
“Your gums bother you when you have chemo … and your mouth is always dry. My lips cracked so bad when I had my first chemo,” McPhail pointed out. “The word puzzles give you something to do.. I knew the things I needed and I wanted to give those out.”
She also places a note in each of the bags.
It reads, in part, “Remember you are in my thoughts and you’re not alone. Just know I was thinking of you before you were diagnosed and will be wishing you a successful journey.”
Working feverishly on the bags, it wasn’t long before she ran out of lung cancer patients at Health Pavilion North and other Cape Fear Valley locations to be beneficiaries of the handcrafted items. She started giving them to all cancer patients. McPhail gives the bags to a social worker, who then distributes them.
“She said people are loving them,” said McPhail, who hopes to soon extend the effort to the Cancer Center in Clinton. “I’ve seen some patients carrying them around and I was like ‘hey I made that.’ I do all kinds of colors. It keeps me busy and it takes my mind off of me.”
Shortly after her diagnosis last year, McPhail and her family went to Kerr Lake, a 50,000-acre reservoir that reaches into Virginia, where they have a sailboat. If ever away from home on Sundays, they find a church. On this particular Sunday, the family went to a church in the area where the parishioners placed her on the prayer list. Not long after the visit, McPhail received a box in the mail from the church’s Women’s Group containing seven presents — one for every day of the week.
“It said to open one present every day and remember that they’re praying for me. I thought that was the neatest thing,” said McPhail, her voice trembling at the thought of the warm gesture. “I just went nuts buying presents and went and bought 20 things and put them in a box for people who I knew in my neighborhood that had cancer.”
That was the genesis of what has now become Julia’s Breath of Hope, started just a few months after her diagnosis. The boxes became handmade bags, the random presents became those valuable little items useful to patients undergoing chemo, all with the note that explaining the Breath of Hope effort.
Her home church, Union Grove Baptist Church in Salemburg, has donated items toward the cause. Patients who have received the bags have done the same. She recently received a donation of $300 that she used to buy $150 worth of fabric and $150 worth of items to fill the bags.
A large portion of her living room has become the sewing room. The ironing board is always out and various colorful pieces of cloth strewn around, each at varying stages in the process of becoming McPhail’s next creation. To date, she has made nearly 100 bags.
“It’s not about me. I’m not the only one going through this. There are so many other people going through the same thing,” said McPhail, whose heart aches when she sees the children undergoing chemo. “When I see those little kids in there it breaks my heart, or when I see someone who looks like a skeleton because they’re so sick. I think it could be so much worse.”
She started a new chemotherapy — her fourth different kind — that she feels is working better. She sleeps more but there’s not as many adverse effects on her body as that first chemo, which made her sick. She heard the immunotherapy can add nine months to a life. A recent MRI actually showed the tumor in her chest shrunk slightly and her lymph nodes remained unchanged, “which is good news,” she noted. “It’s staying where it’s at. It didn’t get bigger. And I feel good.”
“I’m good to go either way,” McPhail continued. ” I know where I’m going. I want to stay here as long as I can and I’m going to fight it as long as I can.”
When McPhail is not at her sewing machine at home, she’s sprawled out on the floor at the home of Jean Bellamy — affectionately known as “Mama B” by McPhail — cutting into her newest fabric designs.
“I’m just so impressed,” said Bellamy. “Only God knows how long we have to live. Doctors can tell you what they see … but only God knows. Had I been told what she was told, though, I don’t know that I would be doing for anybody else right now.”
“And I’m happy,” McPhail interjected. “I’m content and I’m happy.”
In addition to the many bags, she is making baby quilts for her sons and daughter. She has six children with her husband Layton. Each of them had three sons of their own — John, Josh and Jake Sims and Thomas, William and Sam McPhail — before they married each other (Julia’s son John passed away in 2009) and Julia also had a daughter, Janna, who is about eight and half years younger than the youngest boy.
She speaks glowingly about all the children. There are no grandchildren yet, but McPhail knows she might not be around to see them. The baby quilts were a request from Jake.
“I’m on my third (baby quilt). I’ve got to make at least six of them,” McPhail says with a chuckle. “If I have more time, I’ll make more than that. I’ll just keep making baby quilts and bags.”
That will mean more shopping, cutting, ironing, sewing and delivering. McPhail is happy to do it, all from that home in Clement.
“You would not look from the outside and think somebody lives there,” she said of the home, connected to the family business, McPhail Metal Structures.
Inside the metal building is an archway, a fireplace that incorporates re-purposed bricks from the old Clement School, whose front steps are now the McPhails’ back steps. Pieces of an old tobacco barn and antique church doors are also part of the permanent decor, as is a porthole from Layton’s ship in the Coast Guard, which serves as a window into the adjacent shop.
“We did it all ourselves,” said McPhail. Layton’s father was a brick mason and Layton can do anything, McPhail is quick to note. “An awesome man,” he goes to all of her appointments and to the chemo rounds every two weeks, all while running the business, she said.
Their house was actually the couple’s creation. They put up the trusses in 2000 after they started dating and finished the structure in 2009, paying for the materials every step of the way. Julia would even assist Layton in putting on the metal roofs as part of the business.
“We would work all day building metal buildings and at night we would build the house. He doesn’t make me do that anymore though,” she said with a laugh.
Anybody who knows McPhail isn’t surprised by her bubbly disposition despite her diagnosis. They especially aren’t surprised by how much she’s still working to create something for somebody else.
“That’s Julia,” they say.
A self-professed “nut,” McPhail said she already has her epitaph selected.
“The nut is gone, here lies the shell,” she recited, crediting Layton with the idea. “I love it. I want everybody to have a good laugh, because I am a nut. I want people to be happy. I don’t want them crying.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.