Cancer Care

Breast Cancer Survivor Receives Unexpected Birthday Present

Published: Dec. 19, 2023

Prior to her of double mastectomy, Tamy Grate had one request for her 63rd birthday.

“The only thing I want this year is to be cancer-free,” she said to James Reilly, MD, her Methodist surgical oncologist.

While Dr. Reilly couldn’t make any promises before Tamy’s September surgery, he delivered a memorable performance at her post-operative appointment a week after the procedure.


First Meetings

On the first Saturday in April, Tamy found a lump in her breast. Two days later, she visited Methodist Physicians Clinic, where Lacy Vogtman, MSN, APRN, ordered a mammogram and ultrasound. 

The next day, Tamy and John met with Dr. Reilly for the first time. He delivered the unfortunate news that he suspected it was cancer. 

Tamy could hardly believe it; because nine months earlier, her annual mammogram came back clear.

But Dr. Reilly showed the Grates both mammogram scans side by side and explained that nothing was missed nine months earlier. The new discovery was an aggressive form of breast cancer. He also tried to calm their fears by sharing how one of his own family members was a breast cancer survivor, and he reminded Tamy that she didn’t do anything to cause the disease.

“You’re meeting people at one of the worst times of their lives,” Dr. Reilly said. “And they’re trying to decide what they’re going to do, decide if I’m the right person for them. At first, you have to build trust and rapport.”

As shocked as the Grates were of the cancer diagnosis, Chelsea Richardson, PA-C, Tamy’s primary care provider, told Tamy that she was surprised by the discovery because of how healthy she was. 

“I’ve never missed a wellness exam, a colonoscopy, a mammogram. I eat healthy, and working out has always been very important in my daily life,” Tamy said.

Tamy could’ve fallen into deep despair, but she decided to flip the script.

“I came to the conclusion that maybe I had worked so hard at being healthy all of these years to prepare my body for this battle,” she said.


One Less Thing to Worry About

Because the tumor was fairly large, Tamy needed chemotherapy to reduce its size before surgery.

Tamy received chemotherapy from Kirsten Leu, MD, FACP, and a host of nurses at Nebraska Cancer Specialists prior to her procedure in September.

She wanted to let her nurses understand how appreciative she was for what they were doing, so she would bring treats to each of her chemo treatments.

With all of the appointments, one thing Tamy valued was that she never had to worry about figuring out scheduling.

“We take care of them from start to finish,” said Sam Wight, BSN, RN, who initially served as Tamy’s nurse navigator. “We schedule everything. We don’t feel that it’s the patient’s concern to have to schedule those appointments.”

 “We always want them to know their next step so they’re never in the dark,” added Kaley McGowan, BSN, RN, an oncology nurse at Methodist Hospital, who stepped in as Tamy’s nurse navigator during the summer while Wight was on maternity leave.


Special Treats

October 6. Tamy’s birthday and the date of first her post-op appointment at Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center.

The Papillion-La Vista High School secretary wanted to provide a treat for the staff members that day to thank them for caring for her throughout her journey. Tamy and her husband, John, bought a half-sheet cake with the message “Thank You! John and Tamy” iced on it.

After dropping off the cake, Tamy and John moved to an exam room and anxiously waited to hear her pathology results.

Moments later, Dr. Reilly arrived and shared the encouraging news that there wasn’t any cancer in Tamy’s lymph nodes and there wasn’t any leftover cancer in her breast. 

“I was pretty happy to give her that news,” Dr. Reilly said.

What happened next completely surprised the Grates. Because he knew that it was Tamy’s birthday, Dr. Reilly sang her “Happy Birthday.”

John and Tamy were brought to tears by the heartfelt moment.

“He could have just said, ‘Happy Birthday,’” Tamy said, “but he took an extra step.”

Although the performance may have caught the Grates off guard, it didn’t come as a shock to Dr. Reilly’s staff.

“That’s him,” Wight said. “That’s very Dr. Reilly. But for her it was very special.” 

“He’s incredible,” McGowan said. “He always makes his patients feel like he’s there for them every step of the way.”


Many Thanks

Throughout her cancer journey, Tamy told many Methodist doctors and nurses a simple message: “You truly are The Meaning of Care.”

The treats she brought to her appointments came from a place of gratitude because she wanted staff members to feel valued. 

“She was going through more than what people might ever in their entire life, but she made us feel so special during that time for the work that we were doing,” McGowan said.

Tamy and her husband were also blown away by the individualized care they received from Dr. Reilly throughout the six-month journey. And his performance of “Happy Birthday” solidified their impression.

“I have a lot of great doctors, and I love my own family physician, but never has a doctor been that personal.”

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About the Author

Anthony Robinson, a content strategist for Methodist Health System, joined the marketing team after spending over five years as a college athletics public relations professional. He enjoys being able to use his writing ability to tell compelling stories that embody The Meaning of Care

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