As a hard-working mom of four, Mary Beth Schied was focused on building a secure future for her family. A kindergarten teacher, and busy mom and cheerleader for her baseball-playing team of youngsters, parenting had taught her about being present for kids 24/7. But most importantly, despite the constant sense of hurry and rush-rush, she felt there was no greater reward in parenting than having happy, active kids.
She and her husband, Chris, weren’t prepared for the detour life was about to throw at them – cancer.
Over Labor Day in September of 2007, the South Side of Chicago couple’s youngest son, Jake, who was not quite two-years-old, started complaining about a scratchy eye. A visit to the eye doctor revealed that Jake had a mass in his left eye. It was cancer. The next 24 hours were a blur. Jake was admitted to the hospital; surgery was scheduled immediately and chemotherapy began. Just one day into the new school year, Mary Beth went on a one-month leave, launching what would become a school year punctuated with frequent absences, while she stayed at her preschooler son’s side through multiple hospitalizations and treatments.
“The principal of my school said ‘whatever you have to do to take care of your son, you go do it, no explanations,” recalls Mary Beth.
Suddenly, Mary Beth says she felt like her identity as “mom protector” and co-provider for her family seemed severely shaken. No mother ever wants her child to be ill. Her survival instincts were powerful and switched into full gear.
“I just remember saying over and over, ‘Oh my God, this is cancer,” recalls Mary Beth. “This can’t be cancer. And, who is going to take care of my other kids? “
What happened next is nothing short of a miracle, says Mary Beth. Neighbors in their Beverly neighborhood of Chicago, along with teachers at the school where Mary Beth teaches, and parents, faculty and parishioners at St. John Fisher School where Jake’s three siblings – Matt, 10; Bryan, 8 and Stefanie, 7, attend grade school, rallied into action.
The first weekend following Jake’s diagnosis, 500 people attended a prayer service. From September through May – throughout the course of Jake’s hospitalizations and treatments, this team of angels delivered meals for the family, and prepared sack lunches for the three Schied children to take to school.
Several benefits followed. More than 1,600 people staged a fundraiser at a local eatery in March of 2008 raising $160,000. Many of them were from Local 597 Pipefitters, the union that dad Chris belongs to. Students at the grade school held a pep rally in honor of Jake, raising another $4,000.
Unfortunately, this also coincided with news that Jake’s eye would have to be removed.
“What’s also so incredible is how the school kids were so compassionate to Jake,” says Mary Beth. “Here you had first and second graders who didn’t even flinch or say one word when they saw him. They just acted like he was one of the kids, and didn’t make him feel like something was wrong.”
A month later, a threatening tumor was found in Jake’s right eye. “It felt like Sept. 5 all over again,” says Mary Beth. But, after hunting down the leading specialist in the country, Mary Beth and her husband and Jake flew to Philadelphia where Jake underwent aggressive treatment that eliminated the tumor saving Jake’s right eye.
Throughout the ordeal, Mary Beth kept any negative thoughts or feelings to herself. Daytime. But at night, she says her salvation was the friends who waited on her online CarePages’ community, encouraging her to let the tears out.
“There were days when I just needed a really good cry and my friends would be online saying, ‘we’re here, let it out here,” says Mary Beth. “It was my salvation, because as my husband pointed out, if I cried in front of Jake, that what kind of a message that would send? “
Today, with Jake declared completely cancer free; Mary Beth can talk more easily about the last year of her family’s life. She learned a lot about cancer from being a caregiver. But, she says she learned more about the triumph of the human spirit and the power of community to help heal and carry her family through a very difficult time.
“Sadly in our neighborhood we have had two children die in the last four years, so seeing that Jake has thrived and survived sends such a ray of hope to everyone here,” says Mary Beth. “I know I couldn’t have gotten through this without this team of angels.”