Medical Assistant Helps Patient Navigate Difficult Diagnosis

Charlene Gammon panicked when she learned she had stage 4 colorectal cancer: “I was like, ‘Oh God, I got a 14-year-old. What am I going to do?’” She walked into her first chemotherapy appointment feeling low.

Julie Dossou, medical assistant for Eskenazi Health Special Medicine, altered Gammon’s perspective: “She said . . . I know it’s a hard diagnosis . . . but the way you go through it and your attitude is going to make a world of difference.”

“It was hard at first,” Gammon acknowledges. She says Dossou told her to rest for a few days after the treatment, but then “you’re going to get up, and you’re gonna get out.”

“She was not playing with me,” Gammon laughs, adding that “the conversation we had that day is what really made me the person I am today going through this.”

“I have pain,” Gammon continues. “Any cancer patient has pain, but the pain I was having, I don’t have it as much. I’m always out every day, doing something. I don’t care if it’s just for five or 10 minutes . . . . ”

This cheerful outlook has shocked friends, who tell her she doesn’t look or act like she has stage 4 cancer. It doesn’t hurt that she’s still directing her church choir and has been wearing striking custom-made wigs by her friend and stylist Lachelle “NuNu” Hawkins since she lost her hair. “They don’t call me a diva for nothing,” quips Gammon. She finds strength from her friends and family; from her pastor, Frederick Jones of Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church (MBC); from music therapy; and from her faith. Her goal is to be a “blessing” to people going through something like she is.

A sense of responsibility for others is second nature to Gammon. She raised her kids and earned two master’s degrees in the 17 years she worked for a software company. In addition to her fourteen-year-old daughter, Tymea Bell, she has two grown daughters in college, Shanjae Gilbert and Knechole Tyson; a son, Jaelyn Gilbert, now 28, who faced health challenges as a child; and a stepson, Corleyon Dennis, she helped raise from the age of three. Even now, she’s focused on helping several friends and family members through their cancer treatments.

Gammon is doing what she can to prepare in case her time is short, even recording her voice and heartbeat into a teddy bear for her children. They respond by lightening her worries. “My kids have been making me proud, especially since the diagnosis,” she says. Her daughters are her caregivers. Shanjae Gilbert is taking guardianship of Gammon and adopting Tymea Bell. Her son and stepson have been very supportive. Her children even overcame Gammon’s reluctance to celebrate herself, convincing her into a party for the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis this March.

Eskenazi Health Special Medicine providers are also striving to lift Gammon’s spirits. Oncology team members “know me by my first name,” she says. “Whether I’m there to see them or not, they make sure they come to see me . . . . ” Medical/oncology social workers Paige Thomas and Abigail Sutterfield, members of the Eskenazi Health EMBRACE team, are “on it if I need anything.” Gammon says sometimes the EMBRACE team will “just come in and listen.”

This level of support is “why I just praise Eskenazi, not just with Oncology and EMBRACE. With anybody I deal with . . . . ” She appreciates the time her PCP, Broderick Rhyant, M.D., chief physician executive at Eskenazi Health Center Grande, takes explaining her care. “I love him to death,” she says.

“I focus on the good things, you know . . . .” Gammon explains. “I still laugh,” she says. “I still tell jokes. I still do everything that I’ve always done . . . . ”

She also relishes sharing what Dossou taught her about staying positive with fellow chemotherapy patients: “When I start talking to people, they brighten up. Like well, shoot, she’s got stage 4, and look how happy she is. Why am I looking so sad?”

Gammons says she’s not giving up until her body and faith tells her it’s time. “My story’s not everybody else’s story,” she says. “You don’t know. I might live 20 years . . . . I’m not dying of cancer. I’m living with cancer!”

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