To say the things Lu has done in her life are inspirational, might be an understatement. As a Care Coordinator at Provision CARES Proton Therapy, Lu is often the first person a cancer patient speaks to when they call our center. Her ability to put others at ease makes her a calming presence for people who are coping with stress and uncertainty as they seek out treatment options.
Her gifts come naturally, but they’re also amplified by her own life experience. Lu’s family has dealt with cancer on more than one occasion – her son was diagnosed as an infant; her husband got cancer more than a decade later. Not only did she find a way to channel that experience to help Provision patients, but she also used it as an opportunity to start the Chemo Duck program, helping thousands of pediatric patients cope with cancer treatment.
LU’S FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH CANCER
On January 1, 2002, Lu and her husband, Rob, welcomed a baby boy into the world. Their son, Gabe, started life with the distinct honor of being the first baby delivered at Vanderbilt University Medical Center that year!
Almost a year later, on Christmas Day, Lu and Rob returned to the same hospital, but this time, the news wasn’t as good. Gabe was experiencing enlarged lymph nodes and a lazy eye. Antibiotics weren’t working and the symptoms were getting worse.
A CT scan revealed a large mass in his right sinus cavity. It was resting on his brain and crushing his optic nerve.
“That night, as families all over the country settled into the winter evening, we heard the words no parents ever expect to hear. Our beautiful baby boy, one week shy of his first birthday, had a malignant tumor,” recalls Lu. “It was devastating for a new parent. It was very, very frightening.”
AN UNEXPECTED ‘FRIEND’
Gabe was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma and began chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Lu remembers feeling lost because of her inability to help her infant son. However, there was one thing that seemed to bring Gabe comfort. It was a gift from one of Lu’s friends – a stuffed animal duck with oversized feet and a big orange beak. For some reason, this duck was the only thing that made Gabe smile. It seemed to provide a point of connection.
Lu transformed the stuffed animal into “Chemo Duck,” complete with scrubs and a chemotherapy port, to help Gabe understand his treatment. After weekly chemotherapy treatments for nine straight months, 30 radiation treatments, and numerous surgeries, Gabe was declared cancer-free just before his 2nd birthday!
CHEMO DUCK PROGRAM IS BORN
Throughout his time in treatment, parents of other patients noticed Gabe’s duck. Because it was such a comfort for him, some of them requested one for their own child. Always eager to help, Lu started making more Chemo Ducks and giving them away.
When Lu and Rob saw the other kids’ smiling faces and their parents’ relief, they knew they were onto something. They went out and bought every stuffed duck they could find. Lu dressed them up and gave them to the kids, hoping each of them would find that bond with Chemo Duck like Gabe did. The idea was so successful, Lu was inspired to start a non-profit organization in 2004 called Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program.
A SECOND CANCER BATTLE
Lu, Rob, and Gabe spent the next decade delivering Chemo Ducks to children all over the country. Then, in 2015, cancer struck their family once again.
Rob, who had been so focused on his son’s life, was caught off guard by a spinal cancer diagnosis at the age of 45. He went through surgery and radiation therapy, but his journey ended differently than his son’s. Rob passed away in 2017.
Thankfully, Rob left behind two incredible legacies. Back in 2002, when he and Lu returned to Vanderbilt to check on baby Gabe’s symptoms, he was actually working as a project engineer for the construction company that was building the new Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital. Today, that hospital is one of the nation’s leading pediatric facilities.
CARRYING ON THE CHEMO DUCK LEGACY
Then, of course, there’s the Chemo Duck program – a legacy the family started, and Lu and Gabe continue to carry on. Through their non-profit program, they have given ducks to thousands of children to help them learn what to expect during cancer treatment. It serves as a “friend” with whom they can share their experience. Pediatric patients can also use Chemo Duck to help friends, siblings, and classmates understand and empathize what they’re going through.
From the devastation of learning her child had cancer to the joy of hearing he’s cancer-free; the pain of her husband battling cancer years later; and the heartbreak of his death. Lu has been through so much, but the things she has accomplished because of her experience are nothing short of inspiring. And yes – that is indeed an understatement. In fact, we’re not even sure there’s a powerful enough adjective to accurately describe Lu’s story.