By Ed Morrone
ed@headstrong.org

Ward and Barbara Lathrop, a married couple of 54 years from Clinton, N.J., have been guests of Nick’s House Swarthmore since late July as Ward undergoes treatment for skull base chordoma. (ED CUNICELLI / FOR HEADSTRONG)

When Barbara Lathrop stepped inside Nick’s House Swarthmore for the first time on July 24, her mouth physically dropped open.

Eight months prior, her husband of 54 years, Ward, woke up with double vision in his eyes. After consulting with the local doctor and hospital near their home in Clinton, N.J., the Lathrop’s were dispatched to Philadelphia and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). Tests revealed Ward was suffering from skull base chordoma, a form of bone cancer that was pressing against his optic nerve.

Three surgeons removed the chordoma during an 8-hour procedure in January, but six months later it was back, this time nestled against Ward’s pituitary gland. Ward and Barbara were sent back to HUP, and now, proton beam therapy was the preferred treatment option, meaning the Lathrop’s would have to remain in Philadelphia for the next two-months plus.

A social worker at HUP informed the couple of Nick’s House, and they were quickly sold.

“When we were first told, I said, ‘Did you say free?’” Barbara recalled. “Nick’s House was part of a path that opened up so many positive things for us. We were blown away by the old-world charm along with all the modern amenities. The kitchen especially, I call it my playground.”

Like a child on a playground swingset, the Lathrop’s were now worry-free, at least in terms of their lodging dilemma; now, they could focus on Ward’s treatment in an environment where they are constantly supported by HEADstrong employees and volunteers, as well as other families in the home enduring a similar fight.

“It’s so therapeutic,” Barbara said. “Talking about our shared problems, you can’t pay a therapist for that kind of help. We’ve all gotten close so quickly and all feel like family. When you’re around others dealing with cancer, people open up more easily. We take care of each other. I don’t know what we would have done without this house. And I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes.”

For Ward, the pleasures of Nick’s House were simpler. The quieter, suburban vibe of Swarthmore reminds him of home, and the close proximity of the train station to Nick’s House ensures he is just a short sojourn from HUP.

“We’re very happy to have found this place,” Ward said. “For me, the satisfaction comes from knowing we have a place to stay that’s close to the hospital, but also far enough removed from the city that it gives off a more rural feel, more like where we live. It’s a reasonable travel distance and a comfortable situation given all the friends we’ve met here.”

Ward’s last proton beam treatment will be on Oct. 1, and then he and Barbara will head back to northern New Jersey. Because the proton radiation still does its work even after treatment ends, there will be three months of evaluating from afar to see if it worked.

In the meantime, Barbara is busy telling everyone she encounters — doctors, Lyft drivers, hospital construction workers — about the wonders of Nick’s House. She’s also taken down the names and phone numbers of the families she and her husband have encountered at Nick’s House, because the couple maintained the relationships don’t end when somebody moves out. No, those bonds are everlasting, a fact both Ward and Barbara are thankful for.

“Most families are touched by cancer, and what do you do when you live more than two hours away?” Barbara said. “Can you afford a hotel? Is the trip back and forth five times a week worth the money, time and energy? You already have enough to deal with when you have cancer without having to deal with all that extra stuff on top of it.

“Not knowing something like this, and then finding it? It’s a miracle. If you have to go through cancer, this is the best experience I ever could have imagined. You can just concentrate on your loved ones with all the support you can imagine. It’s home.”

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