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Christmas in July, dozens of cards, texts & prayers keep patient positive

IU Health Simon Cancer Center

Christmas in July, dozens of cards, texts & prayers keep patient positive

She’s a schoolteacher who lights up a room with her smile. She doesn’t want cancer to steal her joy.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

There’s a feeling visitors get when they first enter the hospital room of Michelle Dunham. Located in the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, the room radiates joy.

First there’s a shelf filled with Christmas gift bags. Then there’s another shelf overflowing with greeting cards. Then there’s a wall lined with daily devotions. Then there’s a stack of e-cards sent via IU Health’s custom online patient postcard service.

Then there’s the patient – Michelle Dunham, 39, of Tipton. She greets guests like she is welcoming them to join her for a cup of tea. On a recent Wednesday morning the guest list was lengthy. There was the CompleteLife massage therapist, Michelle Bailey, an x-ray technician, several nurses, and her oncologist, Dr. S. Hamid Sayar, with a group of residents in tow.

Dunham took it all in stride. Those daily interactions – especially with her loved ones - are what keep the smile on her face.

“Faith is my foundation,” said Dunham. “I’ve had such a sense of peace since I’ve been here. I have a great care team and family, friends and a whole community of people praying for me. Knowing that they are intentionally and specifically praying for me and receiving their encouragement is so helpful,” she said.

Each person in her “circle” has touched her in some powerful way.

Her parents, Philip and TyAnn Dunham, who live in Kansas, consistently pray for her. Her father sends a text every morning with a new bible verse. Her best friend Elizabeth Fulk, printed pictures that hang from a mobile in her room. The friend also gifted Dunham with a bathrobe and a box filled with 31 greeting cards to countdown her hospital stay. Another friend and co-worker, Gena Schultz planned a “Christmas in July” showering Dunham with gifts and essentials such as dry shampoo, toothpaste, tape, pens and markers.

Those essentials were welcomed when Dunham was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital weeks ago. Her first doctor visit was at a clinic - for what she thought was a sinus or upper respiratory infection. When her condition didn’t improve, Dunham returned to the doctor. This time blood work was ordered. She was preparing for a third visit when she called to learn about her blood results. She was told to go to the ER immediately. Her school assistant drove Dunham to IU Health North where she was transported by ambulance to IU Health Simon Cancer Center. She was diagnosed with leukemia.

A native of Iowa, Dunham came to Indiana as a student at Indiana Wesleyan University. In high school she played clarinet in symphony and orchestra, and was intent on studying music. Her parents and younger brother came with her to Indiana where both parents landed jobs at the Marion campus. As she was pursuing her major Dunham learned her brother had been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome. It changed her course of study.

“I saw him having a hard time in school at a time I was taking one required special education class. As I started learning, I felt called into special education,” said Dunham. She graduated in December 2005, taught in northwest Allen County schools for two years, then in Mississinewa Community Schools. For the past 12 years she has worked with Tipton Community Schools where she serves as coordinator for the special education and English language learners, grades Pre-K through 12.

Many of her gifts and cards are from fellow teachers and co-workers.

And there’s one tiny box tucked safely among the cards, crosses and a stuffed koala bear. That tiny box is a story all by itself. After receiving a hand massage, Dunham pulls the box off the shelf, opens it, and shows it to her massage therapist. Inside is a sparkling ring with a blue topaz stone – Dunham’s birthstone, and her favorite color.

The ring was given to Dunham in the same hospital room that exudes joy. She met Scott Bultman, Jr. through a Christian singles group. They served on a leadership team for two years, formed a friendship and eventually fell in love.

“When I came to the hospital we already had an appointment to look for engagement rings but things changed,” said Dunham. “He showed up at the hospital and surprised me with this ring. I was so shocked and he just said, ‘I love you no matter what and we’ll get through this together.’”

So far, getting through it has meant a week of chemo - 24 hours a day for seven straight days. The second week has been spent watching her numbers, and praying for the best outcome.

“Ever since we started dating we said, ‘it’s been our story for His glory,’” said Dunham. “We still feel that way. This is part of the story. I’ve been so impressed with the team here. Every person I’ve encountered has been so joyful – from the ladies in food service who call me ‘Miss Michelle,’ to the sweet lady who cleans my room and tells me to have a beautiful day. The oncology team has been fabulous – so attentive to detail and always ready to tweak the plan,” she added.

“All of that gives me hope and joy and peace to cling to.”

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Leukemia

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Leukemia

A cancer of the blood caused by the bone marrow producing abnormal white blood cells that crowd out healthy ones.