In the past five years, Clinton native Donald Ringley has gotten married to the love of his life, watched his granddaughter grow up and shared an emotional experience with fellow cancer survivors celebrating renewed life. If not for quality care and support, none of it would have happened.
Ringley joined more than 100 other survivors from across the country for a symbolic tree-planting ceremony June 6 as part of the annual Celebrate Life event at Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Ill.
“That’s all I thought it was — a tree-planting ceremony, but it turned out to be much more than that,” Ringley told The Independent.
Symbolizing the wonder of life and growth, last month’s ceremony commemorated the 26th year a tree has been planted in honor of each five-year survivor. It is a time for cancer survivors to mark their personal milestones and support one another as they continue their fight.
During a dinner the first night of the two-day event, a band of young musicians serenaded the large group of survivors before breaking up into smaller groups and playing specifically for each table. Ringley and others heard from a variety of guest speakers who shared their stories and met with a 101-year-old woman who was a cancer survivor herself.
Along with the tree planting, the 2014 Celebrate Life event also included a gourmet luncheon with organic foods prepared by the culinary team from the Wholesome Bistro, the CTCA in-hospital restaurant. Each celebrant was also honored with an engraved gold leaf, which is proudly displayed on one of three ever-growing “trees of life” located within the hospital.
Survivors were greeted one by one as they entered massive tents on the hospital’s campus for the luncheon.
Ringley, a small intestine cancer survivor, described the emotional gauntlet of caregivers and hospital care team members, who along with hundreds of cheering family and friends, applauded each survivor.
“It was high-fiving all the way into the tent. It was very noisy, very happy and very cheerful,” said Ringley. “Then we had the opportunity to go to the hospital and give back to some new patients. They were happy to see us because we were all five-year survivors. We were allowed to talk to them and I was able to encourage several people that I met that there’s always hope and they’ll do everything they can for you, they’ll help you fight your fight and be as strong as you can be.”
CTCA at Midwestern (technically in Zion, but deemed the Chicago location) is a 73-bed specialty hospital dedicated to treating patients battling complex cancer. It is one of five CTCA facilities across the country, with the others being in Philadelphia, Tulsa, Okla., Phoenix and Atlanta.
Nationally recognized for providing innovative and individualized cancer care, Midwestern is ranked as one of the top 7 percent in the nation for nursing excellence and among the top centers in the country for quality breast cancer care.
The Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Ringley explained, is built on the “mother care” standard, boasting an inviting facility where all needed treatment can be done under one roof by those who genuinely care.
“The standard is that we are treated as he would expect someone to treat his mother,” Ringley said of CTCA founder Richard J Stephenson, whose mother Mary was unable to receive the advanced care she needed before cancer claimed her. “The system is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There is nothing like this center in the world. From the first people you meet to the doctors, it’s an unbelievable experience. You can tell they really care. There’s even one point when they’re hiring new professionals that there is a group of patients they talk to … and patients have a say-so on some of these folks getting hired.”
Ringley talked years ago with Sampson Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Bradshaw, who he credited with turning him on to Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Upon going to CTCA in September 2009, Ringley was diagnosed with Neuroendocrine Carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that he was told required immediate surgery. With his daughter to have a baby the next month, Ringley told doctors he wanted to be there. However, his Stage IV cancer had spread from his small intestine to his abdomen and liver and every day was critical, doctors said.
Ringley’s granddaughter Ashlynn was born in Florida Oct. 14, 2009 and he had surgery in Zion, Ill. the very next day.
“I missed her birth, which was terrible for me, but then again I was able to live,” said Ringley. “In the past five years, I’ve been blessed with my granddaughter Ashlynn, who I had the pleasure to be with as she caught not only her first fish but six more that same day, and I’ve married my lovely wife, Mary, whose dedication and care-giving inspire me to continue the fight without reservation.”
He credited Bradshaw as well as Dr. Charles Komen Brown, a surgical oncologist at CTCA at Midwestern, who conducted the surgery over more than five hours and removed as much of the cancer as possible.
“I am not cancer-free, nor will I ever be. I’m not in remission. I’m what they call manageable. I have a very rare cancer that is not really curable, but they can control it to some extent,” Ringley attested.
The 65-year-old military and state retiree gets a Sandostatin shot once a month which sugarcoats the many small tumors still in his body so they cannot excrete a substance that would make him fatally sick. He is able to get that treatment at a Clinton clinic every month and goes to comprehensive follow-ups in Illinois every six months.
“I don’t look like I’m sick and I don’t feel like I’m sick,” Ringley said.
He said the six-month follow-ups are comprehensive and fairly quick, with various specialists seeing him during a one-day stay to conduct scans, blood work and other tests.
Illustrating the quality of care he receives from CTCA, Ringley said that when he flies into Chicago or Milwaukee, there is always a vehicle provided by the center to pick him up. When his father wanted to be by his side following the 2009 surgery, he flew into Milwaukee, where he found that the center had sent a limo service to pick him up and transport him the hour away to be with his son. When the surgery was over, the service took him back to the airport.
“That’s a normal operation for them,” Ringley said. “They are wonderful people.”
Scott Jones, president and CEO of CTCA at Midwestern, said he is just as impressed with the center’s caregivers and the patients they serve.
“I am continually humbled and amazed at the strength, resilience and fortitude of our patients and their caregivers,” Jones commented.
Being a five-year survivor, Ringley said he stands as one of the many examples that with excellent treatment and care, there is hope.
“It is a major accomplishment that attests to the strength of the human spirit and quality of treatment that CTCA provides,” he remarked. “If I had not interacted with Cancer Treatment Centers of America, you and I would not have had this conversation today. They kept me going, they knew how to treat me and they did treat me properly — and here I am, and I’m hoping for another five.”
For more information on Celebrate Life or CTCA at Midwestern, visit www.cancercenter.com.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-249-4616. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.