In the simple exchange of a big hug and a little mouse figurine, a nurse felt the deep purpose of her work, and a daughter felt hope for a future when kids don’t their lose moms to cancer.
Their solemn gift swap all began with the same woman, Sally Mann, who had traveled with her family from Los Angeles to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1993, seeking to cure her acute myeloid leukemia.
Here in Seattle, Mann underwent a blood stem cell transplant but, unfortunately, relapsed. At that time, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, who today is the deputy director and executive vice president of Fred Hutch, was leading an early-phase clinical trial for which Mann might have qualified, but it was on hold for analysis. Kathleen Shannon Dorcy, a nurse with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Fred Hutch’s treatment arm, who cared for Mann during her relapse, recalled that the trial team felt the wait for the study to reopen would be too long for Mann. So she returned to her home in California for treatment.
In 1995, Mann passed away. But before her death, she and her husband gave Shannon Dorcy a tiny mouse figurine as a tribute to Appelbaum’s mouse-derived study – and with hopes of motivating Shannon Dorcy to keep pursuing cures.
“He’s been on my desk for 20 years,” Shannon Dorcy said of the figurine. “They gave it to me and said, ‘We want you to continue ... finding hope for patients with leukemia, and we want this little mouse to be there as a reminder of us and this journey.’”
The little mouse did just that. Since working with Mann and her family, Shannon Dorcy went on to get her doctorate in nursing, and studied hope as it relates to clinical research participation among cancer patients. She is now director of clinical/nursing research, education and practices at the SCCA and a Fred Hutch staff scientist.
“(My Ph.D. work) looked at how we move science and, at the same time, give people a chance to live as fully as they can,” she said. “In some ways, the little mouse has always been an inspiration to continue.”
This past July, more than 20 years after caring for Mann and receiving the mouse, Shannon Dorcy was digging through a pile of work on a Friday afternoon when she got a phone call from the clinic asking about a visitor. That visitor, Jessica Mann, was in Seattle on a business trip.
As she toured campus, Jessica had mentioned to a Hutch employee that her mom was treated at the center at the time of the clinical trial involving Shannon Dorcy. Jessica also had revealed that her mother had passed away in the early 1990s, when Jessica was 10.
“When she said her mom’s name," Shannon Dorcy recalled, "it was the woman who had given me the little mouse."
Shannon Dorcy immediately took the mouse figurine from his spot on her desk, wrapped him up in a gift bag, and wrote a note to Sally Mann's daughter.
“I told her that this mouse had always been an inspiration and an inspiring point of the real people who we work with here,” Shannon Dorcy said. “I wanted [Jessica] to take this as a part of the gift her family had given this center, and that … it would continue to be an inspiration from her parents.”
As they later strolled together through the E. Donnall Thomas Clinical Research Building on the Hutch campus, Shannon Dorcy helped Jessica connect bits and pieces of her mother’s time at the Hutch.
“She had to catch an airplane so we only had a few minutes to talk,” Shannon Dorcy said. “But she just wanted to get in touch and reconnect the pictures of what this place was. She was only 8 years old when she was here.”
Shannon Dorcy said that, for her, cancer care is far more than simply caring for the patient. It’s more like a tapestry that weaves together patients, families, doctors, nurses and caregivers. And it's about the extended reach of what patients need – sometimes that means sharing their legacy with their child 20 years after they’re gone.
Shannon Dorcy was particularly moved by the fact that, though her mom passed away, Jessica still felt compelled to come back to Fred Hutch
“It touched my heart so deeply because although her mom didn’t survive, (Jessica) did survive,” Shannon Dorcy said. “And it’s the idea that we say, that we promote: We create survivors, but we also create new relationships with families that do live after, and so we’re part of the families of people who don’t continue to live after their diagnosis and treatment. It’s about patient and family care.”
For Jessica, Fred Hutch is more than just the place where her mother sought a cure. It represents her parents’ quest to find a research facility and hospital dedicated to family care. In particular, she recalled the comforting environment of the Hutch School, which she attended during her mother’s treatment.
“I just remember it being a very fostering environment for watching your parents go through this and being very young at the time and having a support system around you that was very aware of everything you’re going through,” Jessica said.
Jessica's return to Fred Hutch happened to be on the same day as the 2015 Bone Marrow Transplant Reunion, an event that welcomed back nearly 200 former patients. Even though her mother wasn’t one of them, they still filled her with optimism.
“I think it's wonderful that there are a lot of people who are here who are survivors,” she said. “My mother unfortunately wasn’t one of those people, but ... this place – being here on and off for a few years while she was undergoing treatment – was very memorable to me. I always looked at this facility and the people working here as a really big sign of hope.”
Megan Herndon is a writing intern on the Fred Hutch news team. She is a rising senior at the University of Washington where she is majoring in journalism, minoring in French and pursuing a Certificate of Sales. Reach her at email@example.com.