One of the teams you’ll see at the 9th annual Run for Her® is Cedars-Sinai’s 3 North. Here is their story:
By the time they got to the starting line for their first Run for Her® 5K Run and Friendship Walk last year, leaders of the 3 North team had already surprised themselves with their performance. Their team — officially named “CSMC 3 North Mother/Baby” — signed up more than 100 members, placing 3 North among the event’s five largest teams, and it raised more than $5,000.
At this year’s run on Nov. 10, they hope to exceed 2012’s performance, fueled by new motivation. They will be running for Danyel Hitchman, a 26-year-old ovarian cancer patient who stole their hearts during her stay in their maternity unit.
That a patient with ovarian cancer wound up in a maternity unit was unusual enough. But it was Hitchman’s outlook — so positive and loving during such a difficult time — that really stood out.
“When I first went to work with Danyel, I expected someone who was down and upset,” said Ciella Espinoza, a lactation specialist in the unit. “And what I found was this amazing light of a person who is so sweet and joyous and optimistic. You wouldn’t expect that from someone who had gotten this type of cancer and just gone through so much.”
Hitchman’s cancer was discovered in January, amid the happiest time of her life. On Sept. 2, 2012, she married her husband, Logan. A few weeks later, Hitchman learned she was pregnant with their first child. At her first prenatal visit, however, her doctor found signs of trouble.
“I was a lot bigger than I should have been at 12 weeks (pregnant), so the doctor did an ultrasound,” Hitchman said. “He found a cyst the size of a football.”
It was a complex ovarian cyst made up of numerous separate nodules. Duringsurgery performed when Hitchman was 14 weeks pregnant, the cyst broke apart. Subsequent biopsies determined that parts of the cyst were malignant.
Terminating the pregnancy so she could immediately begin treatment for the cancer was discussed, but Hitchman said she never considered it.
“Everybody around me thought I should think about it, but to me it was never an option,” Hitchman said. “If I didn’t have this baby, then I would never have any children. And, anyway, she had just saved my life.”
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A cesarean section was scheduled and on May 3, Willow Grace Hitchman was born. Hitchman had only a moment to hold her daughter and then underwent a full hysterectomy. A few days later, as both a new mother and a cancer patient, Hitchman was moved to 3 North, the maternity unit. It was there that Hitchman met Espinoza and other members of 3 North’s Run for Her team.
Mercedes Mendez, RN, a clinical nurse IV who has worked at Cedars-Sinai for 14 years, helped form the Run for Her team last year. Of the 6,000 new mothers the unit handles each year, few have cancer, she said. But the loss of a loved one, a colleague or a patient due to cancer has affected everyone on 3 North, she said.
So when Anna Greif, the unit manager, asked the staff to consider forming a Run for Her team, Mendez volunteered to be a team captain.
Last year, a donation of white-framed sunglasses that all of the team members wore helped them stand out from the crowd. This year, several ideas are under discussion, including team tutus. Their main focus, however, is raising money for research and spreading awareness of the disease.
“You don’t know until you’re there how inspiring Run for Her is,” Espinoza said. “A lot of survivors are there, and so are a lot of family members of people who didn’t make it. And being with co-workers outside of the workplace, it has brought me closer to my colleagues.”
As for Hitchman, she can’t believe her luck. Her baby saved her life, and now her story is helping to save others. She, her husband and baby Willow will all be at the event.
“It’s so touching, what they’re doing,” Hitchman said. “When they first told me, I just started to cry. …
“I’m so grateful that we have this way to spread the word about ovarian cancer.”
This story was originally published in the Oct. 30 edition of the Cedars-Sinai Employee Newsletter. If you have a story to share, please contact Marina.Gudelman@cshs.org.