By Ed Morrone
ed@headstrong.org

Michelle Dowdy, left, and her parents, Willie and Jean, with HEADstrong President Cheryl Colleluori on the family’s final day at Nick’s House Swarthmore.

Jean Dowdy already had enough to worry about with her daughter, Michelle, enduring a battle against cancer. The last thing she wanted on top of that stress was concern about the strange new house she and her family would be staying in while Michelle came to fight the disease in Philadelphia.

Five minutes at Nick’s House Swarthmore, and all of those fears evaporated.

“I’ll tell you, when we parked the car, three families greeted us outside to help us,” Jean said “We sat around and each one introduced themselves. Within five minutes, it felt like, ‘Hey, this is home.’ Nobody was a stranger anymore.”

The Dowdy’s traveled the approximately 90 minutes to the Philadelphia area so Michelle could receive proton beam therapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP) to treat Michelle’s paraganglioma, a rare form of cancer that had developed in her carotid artery. Michelle’s problems began in 2013 before being diagnosed in 2014; unlike many other cancers, there is no test to see if paraganglioma is malignant or benign, so doctors just keep tabs on the situation until the tumor becomes active. For Michelle, this occurred in the summer of 2017; surgeons wanted to remove the tumor in April of this year, but decided minutes before the procedure that it was too risky and instead sent Michelle to HUP to receive proton therapy five days a week for five weeks, meaning she and her parents had to figure out a place to stay for the next month-plus.

Michelle was especially wary at the prospect of staying with complete strangers, so she was especially delighted to find a plethora of kindred spirits under the same roof.

“There’s nothing like sitting down and talking to someone having the same experience as you,” she said. “It offers an immediate connection. Reading about this place online was nothing like being here in person. I didn’t know what we were walking into. The house was beautiful, but who would we be staying with? We were welcomed right away by other patients, volunteers, everyone. I’ve never been that comfortable around strangers, but here we were sitting down and playing games together like family. I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

Willie Dowdy maintained that a stay at a place like Nick’s House versus a more sterilized environment like a hospital did wonders for his family psychologically, an often overlooked aspect of having to deal with a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s like home, and everyone likes to be and feel at home,” he said. “That’s what it was when we came here, almost like a vacation. To me, a place like this one just doesn’t exist, at least not to this extent. A brand new house like this designed just for the comfort of someone who is ill and to make them feel more comfortable, it’s almost like you forget about what you’re here for.”

The Dowdy’s chatted about their stay on the day they moved out of the house; however, before they finished their laundry, packed their bags and headed back southward to Delaware, they needed an opportunity to express gratitude.

Both Michelle and Jean used the word ‘blessing’ multiple times to describe the experience. The family couldn’t believe there was any open availability to stay, mainly because Nick’s House and the amenities it offers feels mythic in nature.

“When we saw it for the first time, we were just awestruck,” Jean said. “Nick’s House is a blanket of comfort. People are sick, but it doesn’t feel like it here. If you’re in the hospital, it’s different. You feel sick, no matter how much comfort doctors and nurses give. An environment like this, you’re home. It’s altogether a different feeling than the hospital; when it’s time to leave the hospital, it’s, ‘Oh, let’s get on up and out of here.’ We’re going to miss and remember everyone here.”

Michelle said her doctors were completely satisfied with how the proton therapy went, and besides a checkup scheduled for next month, had no reservations about sending Michelle back to Delaware. After fighting cancer, a stay at Nick’s House restored Michelle’s faith in the world.

“You forget that good like this this is possible, so when you see it in this form, it’s hard to believe,” she said. “Cheryl has been so awesome this whole time. I love her attention to detail. She wants everyone to feel like, ‘Come on in, this is your home, we will take care of you.’

“We’re going to miss everyone and everything about this place. Unless you experience it for yourself, you really can’t explain it. I’m just very thankful for this awesome blessing.”

The HEADstrong Foundation™ is a 501(c)3 committed to improving lives affected by cancer, founded by the late Nicholas “HEAD” Colleluori. The non-profit organization plays a vital role as a direct resource to families overcome by the hardships of cancer. HEADstrong operates Nick’s House™, guest family homes providing complimentary lodging and support to families displaced in the pursuit of life-saving treatment. Today, Nick’s vision is being fulfilled through the relentless efforts of his family, athletes and supporters across the country uniting in the fight against cancer. For more information on the HEADstrong Foundation and how to donate, please visit www.HEADstrong.org and follow @HEADstrongFND on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

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