Kim: A Story of Faith and Determination

There really are people in the world who will make lemonade out of lemons.

Actually, pink lemonade.

Meet Kim N. of Richmond, Virginia.

She's the kind of person who it seems could walk through utter chaos and come out on the other side somehow still in control and focused. In fact, in a way, she has.

Lemons from Life

On Good Friday 2004, Kim was diagnosed with breast cancer through a routine mammogram.  “I was shocked,” Kim said. “I had no risk factors at all.” Kim quickly went from a lumpectomy to a mastectomy on her right breast, full chemotherapy and radiation treatments and then her expected reconstruction was postponed.

Lemons.

As it turned out, Kim’s future reconstruction was complicated. Before the surgery for her mastectomy, her beloved surgeon Dr. Eric Melzig of Richmond told her that while he felt she was a strong candidate for a skin-sparing reconstruction, 20-plus lymph nodes in her right arm had to be removed during the surgery, and the reconstruction would have to wait. “It was hard news to take,” she said, “I wanted to move ahead. But Dr. Melzig assured me they were treating me for my life and not just my breast, and for that I was grateful.”

What you really need to know about Kim is that she's not a person to feel sorry for herself or to dwell on the negative. Not in her DNA. A former teacher and a strong Christian, she is a woman on the go, a whirling dervish of optimism constantly moving forward, thinking about where she can help next and what she can help improve.

But even for the uber-positive Kim, that first year-plus of post-mastectomy life, which included radiation and 16 weeks of chemotherapy, was a bowl full to the brim with challenges.

“I remember saying to my husband Mark that now I understand why people call cancer a battle,” she said. “I felt like I’d been in a war, like I was wounded and self-conscious.” During those early months, she said, in frustration and humor she would toss her prosthetic breast across her bedroom, telling her husband she was only following the Biblical teaching of throwing away those things that hinder us.

But there was more to come. Kim’s oncologist, Dr. Chris Desch of the Virginia Cancer Institute, a doctor she'd come to love and respect, was killed while flying his plane.  Kim said that before his tragic death, Dr. Desch had sought out the best care possible for her. But Kim's was no ordinary case and the challenges were piling up. Her oncologist was gone, she had radiation burns, extreme swelling in her arm known as lymphedema, and to top it off, her health insurance company wasn't cooperating.  All of these factors combined to eventually put her on a path to a different out-of-state hospital where she finally had her reconstruction performed. It turned out to be a disaster.

“What I ended up with looked like a yeast roll,” Kim says now in her ever-present humor. “It was two inches higher than my normal breast. I called it a Frankenstein boob.”

But this was not the end of Kim's story. Not Kim. Really it was only the beginning. There were doctors and others who would then come into her life whose healing hands and guidance would help restore her to the symmetry she yearned for. And then, of course, there was Kim herself, the pink lemonade maker.

Sweetening the Situation

The first person to influence her was a stranger, a fitter working in a store that sold mastectomy bras who saw the result of Kim’s reconstructive work. “When this woman saw my results she said to me, ‘I’m so sorry. You should have seen Dr. Chang.’”

Dr. Chang is Bernard W. Chang, M.D., who leads Mercy's Breast Reconstruction and Restoration Center. He works closely with the physicians of The Hoffberger Breast Center at Mercy and has extensive experience performing the deep inferior epigastric perforator (DIEP) flap procedure for breast reconstruction. His reputation had stretched all the way to Richmond.

So Kim followed the woman's advice and headed to Baltimore, to Mercy, to Dr. Chang. It all fit.

"I think I hugged Dr. Chang the first time I met him. One of the first things he said to me was ‘I think I can help.’ Those were the words I wanted to hear."-Kim

Dr. Chang performed a second reconstructive surgery on Kim, this one at Mercy Medical Center. The result did not look like a monster. Instead it was a monster result.

“Dr. Chang was so thorough and considerate. I’ve always loved the name of the hospital – Mercy, because it means kindness and compassion and that’s what I received from Dr. Chang and the whole hospital. I was happy with the result. Mercy helped me improve the ease of dressing and helped me feel better in my clothes and in my own skin. As a woman that was important to me. I wanted to save precious time to do other things.”

And did she ever.

Pink Lemonade

While her experience with breast cancer certainly spurred Kim to different and higher heights, she is no neophyte to the power of faith and good works. In 1995 she came up with a simple idea for a women's ministry with the mission of reaching out to women one sweet invitation at a time for Christ. That idea turned into a full-fledged nonprofit ministry providing training and materials to outreaches  in all 50 states and 15 countries.

Her second calling, or perhaps her ultimate calling, is an effort that is another result of Kim's battle with cancer and her own desire to ensure that women like her keep fighting, and look and feel good while doing it.

After her mastectomy, one of the great frustrations Kim faced was that she could not find anything comfortable or attractive to wear home from the hospital and the many post-surgery follow-up visits. She also said, she was not prepared to have to deal with her dreaded drains and the problem of having to manipulate them while removing clothes and putting on hospital gowns. So, as she has so often done, Kim addressed the issue herself.

Working with a Manhattan-based fashion designer she developed a post-surgical camisole that looks like fashionable clothing but is medically quite functional. She also developed a product which is a doggie-shaped piece of foam that helps sufferers of lymphedema keep their arm elevated above their hearts to help reduce swelling.

And if that weren't enough, Kim is now finishing a book featuring devotions for women.

Kim N. You cannot stop her. You can only hope to slow her down.

Or add to her strength.

“There have been so many people who have come into my life to help me. Nothing happens by yourself,” Kim noted. “From my family to Dr. Chang and my PA, sweet Meg, and other nurses and staff at Mercy, to the angelic fitter at the store - they’ve all played a role in my recovery.

“But I think right now I am where I’m supposed to be, and I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Kim adds that she finds it interesting that she has always favored the color pink and used it throughout her life well before it became a symbol for breast cancer awareness. She has a bright pink door at the entrance to her office building, drives a pink truck, and often wears a pink flower pinned to her left shoulder.

“Through this life-threatening ordeal what I’ve discovered really has honed my purpose. I think I may have known it before, but now I’m convinced that helping women is what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Well, that, and of course, making lemonade from whatever lemons life may throw at her. Pink lemonade, of course. Pink - caring, compassionate, focused and full of sweet energy.

Kim's Treatment Team

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