First, there was COVID. Then a cancer diagnosis. And now, for these Chatham sisters, Thanksgiving.

Posted 11/23/21

SILER CITY — What two Chatham County sisters experienced in the past year has helped them understand that Thanksgiving isn’t simply a once-a-year family holiday — it can be a way of life, …

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First, there was COVID. Then a cancer diagnosis. And now, for these Chatham sisters, Thanksgiving.

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SILER CITY — What two Chatham County sisters experienced in the past year has helped them understand that Thanksgiving isn’t simply a once-a-year family holiday — it can be a way of life, too.

Their journey to that realization began with the onset of the summer of 2020. A pandemic was starting to rage, but for Leslie Hayes, Tonya Williams and the sisters’ mother, Debbie Champion, life was humming along nicely.

Within a period of just a few days, though, everything changed.

On June 30, Leslie, 41, had her first-ever mammogram.

On July 4, during a holiday beach vacation, Tonya, 48, began to feel ill.

Days later, the twin diagnoses they’d receive would leave mom Debbie with staggering questions about how she could help her daughters and their families, and even contemplating whether her girls would survive.

The malady that interrupted Tonya’s beach vacation was positively diagnosed as COVID-19, and she soon became so sick that she was hospitalized. And after a series of follow-up tests following her mammogram, Leslie was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 22.

Tonya’s stay at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill initially lasted until early October, when she was transferred to Select Specialties in Greensboro to be weaned off a ventilator. After three weeks there, she was moved to Moses Cone Hospital for a month of therapy and rehabilitation before finally returning home to Siler City, weak and exhausted, on Dec. 5.

Meanwhile, in mid-September, Leslie underwent a double mastectomy at Asheboro-Randolph Cancer Center. In October, she began two months of radiation therapy.

Even with that, she probably had the easier route than Tonya did.

“I was able to continue working at my job with Chatham County Social Services,” said Leslie, who lives near Seagrove, “I also did paperwork for Tonya to help her and mama. That helped keep my mind off me.”

‘What does normal mean?’

Over at UNC, Tonya’s mind — and the days — became a blur. Not long after being admitted, she had a tracheotomy to allow her to breathe better.

“I was aware of some things,” she recalled, “but had to be sedated because I was spending 16 hours a day on my stomach while my oxygen levels bounced around. Finally, one day they told me I’d have to be on a ventilator, and by then I was so tired I didn’t care if they cut my legs off.”

In late July, Tonya began an 87-day stretch attached to that ventilator — part of which she spent in an induced coma.

Even so, she remembers a few conversations with family members and some events.

“There was never really a good day,” she said. “Some good moments, and then I’d slip back, up and down. I was on paralytic medications so much that I have some residual effect, some weakness in my legs. The muscles and nerves stopped talking to each other.”

Compounding her bout with COVID was Tonya’s asthma, making the care she received particularly vital.

“I had some really, really good doctors,” she says. “Finally, they said I needed to get off the ventilator and go through what [Select] Specialties could do for me. When I left UNC, I could follow commands but I didn’t have enough strength to squeeze someone’s hand.”

Some time later, after returning home, Tonya called UNC to schedule a follow-up appointment. She asked the staff person in that office if they remembered her.

“’We sure do,’ she said,” Tonya recalled.

The person told Tonya something startling: “You’re the most critically ill patient we’ve had who recovered.”

“Later, when I was in the office, the doctor said he couldn’t believe the person he was seeing had come so far,” Tonya said “They told me they wondered how things turned out after I left since they didn’t hear.”
The latter part of 2020 is a dark memory for the sisters. Now, as 2021 draws to a close, Tonya and Leslie reflect on the changes, and on what’s ahead.

The question, says Tonya — who uses a wheelchair to get around, and hasn’t returned yet to her former position in the administrative offices of Mountaire Farms — says, is: “Will I be normal?”

“I guess part of that is what does ‘normal’ mean?” she asks. “Without normal oxygen for as long as I was, there can be some brain injury. But I can remember things before I got sick.”

Debbie says she sees Tonya with strong recall and a zest for life.

“I was on so much medicine that it takes a long time to get out of your system,” Tonya says. “For instance, I had fevers often and would take antibiotics, but after stopping the medicine, the fever would return. Finally, a nurse came into my room and said, ‘We’ve got it.’ They let the culture grow a little longer and they were able to get the right medicine.”

While her two daughters dealt with their situations, mom Debbie, who’s widowed and works part-time at Food Lion, was trying to figure out how to proceed.

“Life was horrible,” she remembers. “I’d walk the dark halls of the hospital; they were lighted, but they were dark to me. Sometimes we’d get a glimmer of hope, some baby steps. She (Tonya) had other things going on — needing dialysis, sepsis. I finally told the doctors, ‘I know you don’t have all the answers and that you’re trying. You do that and I’ll pray.’”

She always had faith, Debbie said.

“But this really deepened it,” she said. “I’d pray all the way to Chapel Hill and back. I’d pray, ‘God, you know what I want,’ and finally got to where I could pray, ‘Your will be done.’ And my daily devotions seemed to speak to me when I really needed them.”

Part of her struggles as a mother was that Debbie had two grown children dealing with major illnesses at the same time.

“Sometimes I’d feel guilty spending so much time with Tonya when Leslie had so much going on herself,” she said. “I didn’t want her to think I loved one more than the other.”

For Leslie, that never was an issue.

“I told her, ‘Mama, you go with Tonya,’’ she said. “’You’re her advocate.’”

‘A lot to be thankful for’

Now that all those events are in the past, the family is focusing on where to go from here. Tonya is doing physical therapy and pulmonary rehab, and it’s going well.

“But what to expect? We don’t know,” she said. “The doctors tell us we’re teaching them. Most people stay on a vent two weeks; I did three months.”

Leslie has had good reports from her oncology team since having her procedures, as well.

“I’ve got a good prognosis,” she said. “The cancer was found early. I still go for scans, but it wasn’t easy being told at 41 years old you have bilateral breast cancer.”

The experience helped them both think about the “big picture” of family.

“We had to learn some things,” Tonya said, “like how to ask for help. You’re supposed to take care of your children and they did so much for us we wonder if we robbed them of part of their childhood” — she says this speaking of her two children, Jacob and Faith, and of Leslie’s daughter Liza, who’s just beginning to drive.

And on top of that is concern for their mother Debbie.

“I don’t know how mama did it,” Leslie said.

If you ask Debbie, she’s pretty sure she knows — it was her faith that sustained her.

“God takes our trials and tribulations and lets us see what can happen,” she said. “I told myself I’m not going to doubt, that God’s got this. One day a doctor told me Tonya was a little better, and I said, “’What did I tell you?’”

As the family adjusts, they’re thankful for their blessings — but also for opportunities.

“This showed us how quickly things can happen,” Debbie said. “But one of the biggest things to come out of this, besides our own experiences and blessings, is the families we’ve been able to visit with and talk with, maybe as many as 25 serious cases. We’ve been told so many people ask about us, that Tonya’s name keeps coming up — because she made it.”

For her part, Tonya sees those times as a chance to help others who are struggling, to share hope.

Of all that’s changed, though, some things remain the same.

“I was talking with Tonya on the phone once,” Debbie says, “when UNC was talking about a ventilator and a DNR (do not resuscitate order), if needed. I told Tonya she’d been a joy and then I thought, ‘I hope she doesn’t think we’re giving up.’ The reality is she and her family are still a joy and so is Leslie and her family.”

“Last year,” Debbie continued, “we didn’t have Thanksgiving. We did have Christmas at home. This year, we’re going to celebrate.”

It’ll make their Thanksgiving together this year even more special.

“We know,” Leslie said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”

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