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When Brazil, Ind. resident Judith “Judi” Lucas was admitted to IU Health University Hospital she brought with her a special friend – a purple pig.
There’s such seriousness to cancer that Judith “Judi” Lucas longs to find some normalcy in her fight that some call a long, unpredictable journey.
Her fight started about 30 years ago. She was living in northeast Ohio and when her body temperature would suddenly soar upwards, she would plant herself in a snow bank to cool down. At work, she positioned an industrial fan in range to keep her cool. Her boss often ran to get her a candy bar or soda, thinking she was having a diabetic reaction and needed sugar.
At her worst, she’d pass out. She’d be transported to a hospital, a doctor would run tests, but there was never a clear diagnosis. She moved from Ohio to California and at one point was given the most shocking news of all – they thought her condition was cancer.
“They said go home and wait to get sick. Maybe next time you come in we’ll have better knowledge of what it is,” said Lucas, 60. “They monitored it for years and when we moved to California the doctors still monitored me, but they didn’t know exactly what it was.” The episodes came more frequently. She became very ill and needed blood transfusions.
Finally, she was given a name for her illness: Myelofibrosis, a rare type of blood cancer manifesting as a type of chronic leukemia.
“When I knew there was a name for my condition, I wanted to sing,” said Lucas. She was told the only cure was a bone marrow transplant. Two years ago, when she and her husband, Dave moved to Brazil, Ind. Lucas began researching physicians and connected with Dr. Jennifer Schwartz, a hematologist who specializes in bone marrow and stem cell transplantation.
From her hospital bed at University Hospital, Lucas can see a sign of hope written on the white board: “Happy Birthday.” The message indicates she recently received a stem cell transplant and a chance at new life.
“For so long I just learned to live with it. I’m thinking the best. I’m doing well,” said Lucas, the mother of three daughters, and a son ages, 40, 38, 32, and 21. She is also a grandma and she loves animals. She raises chickens at her Brazil home. When was scheduled for the transplant she was told she couldn’t be around the chickens because of her compromised immune system.
“When Dr. Schwartz first suggested the stem cell transplant, I was strong and I never broke down until she mentioned I couldn’t be around my chickens. I just love animals,” said Lucas. “When I got the diagnosis, she said I had a 30 or 40 percent chance of surviving, so the day before I came in, I decided to go to the zoo. I knew it wasn’t the popular thing to do but I thought I would regret it if I didn’t go.”
During her hospital stay, Lucas has found comfort in music therapy singing along with Emily Caudill, a board-certified music therapist with CompleteLife Program at IU Health Simon Cancer Center. She’s also found healing through laughter – especially making others laugh.
Everyone who comes into her room knows about the purple pig. It’s become sort of a mascot for the hospital floor. A gift from her husband, Lucas keeps the pig at the top of her IV pole. Over the course of her stay, Lucas says lots of people have had a hand in naming the pig. First it was “Penelope.” Then it was “Penelope the Purple Pig.” Then it was “Penelope the Purple Polka Dot Power Pig.”
Caudill even helped her write a little song about the famous sow.
“Everyone has to squeeze the pig before they leave my room,” said Lucas. And when they do the pig lets out a loud “squeak” rather than a “squeal” that can be heard outside the door of Lucas’ room.
“I’ve had the most serious doctors come in here and when they squeeze Penelope, they let out a loud laugh,” said Lucas. “Everyone knows about Penelope – the nurses, the people who bring in the food, the music therapist – they all know.”
So why does Lucas have the pig in her room?
“It’s simple – it’s just something to make people smile,” said Lucas. “And that makes me smile. I used to teach religious education at church and I’d tell the kids, ‘if you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.’”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.