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Sandra “Ola” Najib relates the first time she met her “new” oncologist Dr. Sara Jo Grethlein like this:
“She started telling me about how she was training to walk a marathon and me being athletic, and competitive, I thought ‘there is no way this woman is going to out walk me.’”
That was nearly two years ago and it was enough of a challenge to get Najib moving. She was going through chemo and had gained weight when she decided to start training.
“It took me nearly two hours to complete two miles but I noticed the more I walked, the better I felt,” said Najib. “I sort of had this change in my outlook. I thought ‘it isn’t fair to ask this doctor to give her very best to care for me if I’m not doing all I can to care for myself,’” said Najib. As the training continued, Najib became acquainted with Dr. Grethlein outside of her check ups. The two walked together and when it was time to cross the starting line of the 500 Festival Mini Marathon, Dr. Grethlein stayed with Najib, every step of the way. “Sara Jo is the queen of walking and I proudly admit that I can not beat her,” said Najib, adding that their mini marathon walk was a testimony of Dr. Grethlein’s dedication to her patients.
A graduate of Southport High School, Najib, played volleyball, basketball, soccer and track in high school. She was the fifth of nine children and was born in Egypt, her dad, Emad Salik’s, homeland. Her mother is from Indiana. Najib was raised Muslim and continues to follow Islamic practices as an adult.
Long before she was diagnosed with cancer, Najib learned about fear. “Prior to 9/11 I dressed in traditional Muslim attire, but after 9/11 the climate changed. I was getting on an elevator one day and no one would get on the elevator with me. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t have to. I just knew,” said Najib. “Believe it or not, that actually changed how I view people. I don’t want to judge. I want to think that all people – no matter their race, religion or politics – just want to be safe and happy.”
After high school, Najib served in the Army for eight years and then worked in Hospice – a job that opened her eyes to the possibilities of a profession in nursing. But fate took its course and she headed in a different direction. One day after a routine workout at the gym, Najib noticed someone behind her at the grocery. It turned out to be the head coach for the Indianapolis Vipers, the Circle City’s professional women’s football team.
“I guess he could see I was tall and big and agile, so he asked me to try out for the team,” said Najib. “I didn’t know if the team was touch or tackle but I decided to try out.” She landed a spot as a defensive end and played with the team from 2002-2004 traveling to places like Birmingham, Ala., Greenville, S.C. and New Orleans, La. The team made it to the 2003 Super Bowl but lost to Jacksonville.
Football is one of the interests Najib shares with Dr. Grethlein.
“She’s a Jets fan, I’m a Colts fan,” said Najib, who refers to Dr. Grethlein as her personal “Wonder Woman” for her dedication to her profession and attention to patient care.
Najib’s health challenges began in 2004 when she was diagnosed with Polyarteritis nodosa (PAN) - a rare autoimmune disease causing inflammation of the arteries. Because arteries are involved, the disease can affect any organ of the body, the most common areas being the muscles, joints, intestines (bowels), nerves, kidneys, and skin.
“I beat that and six months later I was diagnosed with Liposarcoma,” said Najib. Lipsarcoma is a rare type of cancer that begins in the fat cells and is considered a type of soft tissue sarcoma. It can occur in fat cells in any part of the body, but in most cases, it occurs in the muscles of the limbs and abdomen.
Najib’s first treatment involved surgery to remove part of her calf, followed by radiation. Six months later she underwent surgery to remove cancerous areas from her armpit and breasts, again followed by radiation. A year later, the disease was discovered in her hip. Two years ago she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Then last year, tumors were discovered in her abdomen and groin.
“For as large as I am, I’m actually very gentle. I was afraid of staying in the hospital, I was afraid of the outcome and I was afraid of the prognosis,” said Najib, 43. “Dr. Grethlein has helped me with those fears. Even before we became friends she gave me her cell phone number and encouraged me to call her with any questions or concerns. It always amazed me how she remained so balanced. She’s a wife, a mother, a daughter and she works with patients who are very ill. I was taken by her energy.”
When Najib talked to Dr. Grethlein about her interest in pursuing a career in nursing, Dr. Grethlein encouraged her.
“She said she’d work my appointments around my nursing clinicals. She also told me if I wanted to use cancer as an excuse not to pursue nursing, she’d accept that,” said Najib.
“She has taught me what it’s like to set an example for others – not all sickness is ugly and painful. People tell me all the time that I don’t look like I’m sick and I believe it’s because I know physical and mental health are important and it’s also important to have someone on the sidelines cheering for you.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.