By Ed Morrone
Steve and Laurie Stasonis anticipated spending their 29th wedding anniversary in their adopted hometown of Pulaski, New York. The bucolic, idyllic fishing hamlet 30 miles north of Syracuse has served as the Stasonis home base for the last 20 years (the couple is originally from Connecticut), where they enjoy a plethora of outdoor activities in the shadow of the Adirondacks.
Instead, the couple spent their anniversary, as well as the Thanksgiving holiday, at Nick’s House in Swarthmore as Steve is treated for base of tongue carcinoma at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Life was fairly normal for Steve, a retired toolmaker, and Laurie, a CT/X-Ray technician, even after Steve had undergone some standard “old-man surgeries”: cataracts, carpal tunnel and a hernia.
But then, following the hernia surgery in April, Steve developed a cough that he couldn’t quite shake. When it persisted through the summer, a battery of tests led to an ultrasound that revealed an enlarged lymph node. Steve had a biopsy on Sept. 15, and learned of his diagnosis shortly thereafter.
“His health problems were a shock to us, because they just began,” Laurie said. “So then it becomes a question of, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ We got a list of hotels in the area and just said, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It wasn’t until we met with a radiation oncologist that a social worker came to us and showed us pictures of Nick’s House. The moment I saw them, I said, ‘Yes, we’re staying there.’”
“We walked in the door and she immediately started crying,” Steve said of his wife. “We’re here until Dec. 19, so what the heck would the cost of a hotel be? Plus six meals a day, that would put you into bankruptcy in a heartbeat. By staying here, I can think about the things I need to think about, like getting better, and not about where I’m going to sleep.”
As part of the rehabilitation to attack Steve’s tongue cancer, he has been outfitted with a tracheostomy tube to provide an airway. He’s still able to talk, but with laborious effort; this, combined with a constant fatigue that has followed Steve around, has left Laurie to do most of the talking as she continues to assimilate from wife to the role of wife/caregiver.
“Being a caregiver is hard on a relationship,” Laurie admitted. “Sometimes people don’t realize that. You hear the ‘cancer’ word and everything stops. All of the sudden work stops, because Steve needs 24-hour care … all of this stuff just stopped, not just for him, but for me also. It’s very much a ‘What the heck just happened?’ moment, which is very difficult. There’s a learning curve.
“Coming here, I’ve felt the warmth of the love that goes into this place. The overwhelming compassion of everything (HEADstrong President) Cheryl (Colleluori) does, all the volunteers I’ve met … everyone has a story as to why they are here. It only took a few days before I felt like I had known Cheryl forever. Just knowing that after a long day at the hospital for treatment that we don’t have to worry about where we’re going late at night, it makes you feel safe to come home, as I’ve been calling it.”
During the Stasonis’ stay, Steve has been enduring a grueling schedule of five radiation treatments per week, plus chemotherapy on Wednesdays. Being a diabetic, it takes doctors and nurses longer to prepare Steve for his treatment, and there are some days that he and Laurie leave Nick’s House at 7 a.m. and don’t return to Swarthmore until 12 hours later, if not later.
“I get tired quickly,” Steve admitted. “But I feel like I can relax here. It’s a place for people who really need help but might not have the money. It gives you this calming feeling where you just don’t have to worry about anything. Get treatment, come here, be safe, rest…that’s it. Nobody bothers you, and you focus on getting better. And it doesn’t cost us a penny to stay here; we don’t have to buy paper towels, soap, laundry detergent, nothing. Never in the world have I ever seen any place like this. Everything happens for a reason, and I hope we can do something for them someday to say thanks.”
Before Laurie and Steve sat down to share their story, a friend was visiting them from out of town. The friend, like everyone else they tell about Nick’s House, was awestruck, and the true wonderment of it all made the couple cherish this wedding anniversary even more so.
“I tell everybody about Nick’s House and that they just have to see it,” Laurie said. “I tell them about the amazing, overwhelming feeling I get. It’s still unbelievable to me. This home away from home has been a big, loving hug to us.”