By Ed Morrone
As a nurse for 31 years, Holly Sheppard was always in the business of helping others.
That is, until she needed some help of her own.
Sheppard, a Toms River, N.J. native who now calls Port Orange, Fla. home, began her confusing, frustrating odyssey in 2014 when she was misdiagnosed with a stroke following symptoms of right sided weakness and speech problems. Soon thereafter, the seizures came, and a flummoxed Sheppard and a team of doctors in Toms River spent the next year trying to get to the root of her health problems.
In 2015, Sheppard sought a second opinion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She underwent 10 days of testing and two craniotomies before doctors at Penn finally zeroed in on the root of the issue: Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma, a cancer in which malignant cells form in the lymph tissue of the brain or spinal cord. In Sheppard’s case, it was her brain.
Sheppard, no stranger to being around the ill, couldn’t believe it, especially given the fact that she had two children ages 5 and 7.
“When it happens to you or your loved ones,” she said. “You go totally numb.”
Sheppard endured chemotherapy and went into remission until August of this year. She was home in Florida when she noticed “a huge floater” come across one of her eyes. After consulting on the phone with her doctor, Sheppard booked the next flight to Philadelphia and was soon back at Penn, this time for radiation after it was discovered that the lymphoma had returned.
Sheppard knew she was in good hands medically, but the radiation required her to be in Pennsylvania through at least Sept. 7, when her daily radiation treatments ended. Being almost 1,000 miles from home presented a lodging dilemma, and staying with family in Toms River meant a two-hour drive in each direction, every day, for several weeks.
Enter Nick’s House.
Sheppard, dealing with separation anxiety from her husband and children back in Florida, immediately felt at ease as soon as she arrived for her stay.
“I started crying as soon as I came in the door,” she recalled. “Just overwhelmed at how beautiful the home was; it really makes you feel like you’re at home with your family. The other guests and I sit around the kitchen and have group therapy. We hold each other up.
“It’s comforting to know there’s other people out there feeling the same way you are, like you’re drowning. Here, we can be each other’s life preservers.”
Sheppard said she was so motivated to get healthy and back to her family that she was prepared to sleep in her car in the hospital parking garage. Luckily it never came to that, and that sinking feeling of dread was soon replaced with ones of comfort and relaxation.
“I came into the living room and saw the framed photo of Nick, and I started crying again,” Sheppard said. “The good things this place is doing, if only he knew. The people at HEADstrong, you can tell the desire to help is genuine and comes from deep within their hearts.
“They have the inner empathy and strength to know exactly what we’re going through. It’s much more than just a place to stay: it gives you faith that no matter what, you’re going to be OK. At a time when it feels like everything is crashing down, Nick’s House made me feel at ease.”
Sheppard has FaceTimed with her husband and children, now 10 and 7, and were able to shed some of their own fears when they saw “how pretty the house was,” according to Sheppard.
“They were so amazed at what they saw,” she said. “In a way, cancer was a gift to me, because it gave me the opportunity to meet beautiful, intelligent, caring people I wouldn’t have otherwise. It was meant to be.”
As long as her last radiation treatments go smoothly and her subsequent PET scan comes back clean, Sheppard will hopefully be cleared to return to Florida sometime in the next week. She can’t wait to reunite with her family, but at the same time, Sheppard is thankful for the truly unforgettable experience Nick’s House provided.
“I’m just in awe that there are good people out there willing to do this for me, simply because they want to help,” she said. “It’s a takeaway I can’t put into words. I told my sisters and brothers how nice of a time it was in a time where I’m going through radiation and it shouldn’t be nice at all. When I’ve needed a hug, they were there. I can’t even express how much this place touched me.”
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 provides a variety of services, which range from financial assistance to funding capital projects to peer mentorship and, most notably, HEADstrong operates Nick’s House™, a guest family home providing more than 2,555 nights of complimentary lodging and support to families displaced in the pursuit of life-saving cancer 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, host a fundraiser or volunteer, please visit www.HEADstrong.org.