Jackie Yongue’s message of hope
Jackie Yongue watches the winter landscape from the warm confines of her sunroom. A mug of tea with a straw sits on her lap. The home she shares with her husband of three years, Harris, is over 100 years old and is listed in Warrenton’s historic registry. An image of the house in its earlier days is displayed in the dining room. The photo remains with the house; passed along to each new owner. Over the years, the house has been updated and undergone renovations to reinforce its strength. Like the house, Jackie too has experienced many changes over the past several years. Through it all, she has found love, tightly woven through each new season and change, helping her to keep all the pieces together.
Jackie shares her story, one that begins at the end of 2012 with hope and optimism for a new career she was about to embark upon in Washington, D.C. that would help her provide for her 11-year-old daughter. Having worked in Fauquier County for many years, she gave notice and had one week to enjoy before beginning the exciting new chapter of her life.
It was on January 11, 2013 that Jackie dealt with a persistent nosebleed. It was so severe that she went to the emergency room. The outcome of this visit altered the course of her life. On January 24, 2013 Jackie was diagnosed with stage four adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer.
Jackie was between jobs, had no source of income, no health insurance, and imminent surgery; she put her faith in God. As news spread about her condition, old friends reached out and Jackie reconnected with many of her former classmates. One such friend was a general practitioner who helped her research and understand the medical terminology she found herself inundated with. With her friend’s help, Jackie selected a doctor in North Carolina, just 30 minutes from her identical twin sister’s home and family. Keeping her permanent residence in Warrenton, Jackie scheduled her surgery in North Carolina and planned to remain there until she was well enough to return home.
On her way back to Virginia from a doctor’s appointment prior to her first surgery, Jackie turned off the radio and drove with only her thoughts to accompany her. She was trying to understand how she was going to manage. It was at that moment she heard God speak to her: “It was coming from within me, but was more than my thought.” She recalls, “The voice reassured me that I would never be alone by telling me, ‘You will be okay’. When I asked how, the voice said, ‘Because I will never leave you.’” She had more questions, but the voice became silent.
One month after her diagnosis, Jackie underwent her first surgery. During the nine-hour procedure, surgeons removed as much of the tumor as they could without penetrating her brain, where the cancer had spread. They removed virtually all of the left side of her face including her eye socket, hard pallet, cheekbone and jaw which were all infected with cancer. When she woke from surgery, Harris, then only her boyfriend, smiled brightly from her bedside, “Seeing his big smile, I assumed the surgery went well and that I didn’t look too different.” His outlook helped shape Jackie’s: “Going into surgery we didn’t know what I would be like when I woke-up, Harris was just happy to see ‘me’.”
Jackie stayed in the hospital for two weeks. Friends and family cycled through to spend nights with her because she was frightened to be alone. Jackie had to learn how to swallow and speak again. On day 10 she passed a swallow test and was permitted to go home.
“I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone my house,” recalls Jackie. Her friends didn’t wait for her to ask for help. “While I was in radiation, a friend in North Carolina held a fundraiser and other friends set up another campaign in Warrenton. Friends arranged for lawn maintenance and housekeeping, and friends flew in from out-of-state to care for me.” Thanks to all this support, Jackie was able to focus on recovery and adjusting to her new normal. But her journey to recovery was just beginning.
A rod had been placed above her cheek to support her eye; it had begun to tear the skin under her eye and became infected. Jackie required another surgery to address these complications. This second surgery lasted 15 hours, and doctors removed as much as of the infected tissue as they could. Because she remained on her right side for so many hours her nerves were damaged. When she woke up, she experienced numbness in her hand up to her elbow which progressed to limited use and chronic pain.
Unfortunately, a MRSA infection permeated the surgical-site in her eye and doctors had to scrape the infection from the wound. Jackie endured 30 hyperbaric oxygen therapy treatments before her second surgery to administer oxygen to the infected site to encourage healthy cell growth, and 30-days of a PICC line for intravenous antibiotics. The skin around her eye became so tight from surgeries and twice-daily radiation treatments that surgeons had to stitch her eyelid closed so they could monitor the skin to determine if a graft would be needed, or if skin from her upper eyelid could be used on her lower lid to support her eye.
Through all of the complications Jackie was never alone. Her friends and family stood beside her, and her community rallied their support. Donations enabled her to cover her mortgage for one year, ensuring she and her daughter would still have a home to live in.
Jackie’s mother also stayed with her to assist her on the road to recovery. The pair were at a therapy appointment for Jackie when her mother mentioned some pain in her shoulder. At the next visit a couple of weeks later, the pain was still there. Jackie’s therapist told her mother tto have her shoulder looked at it. Jackie’s mother was diagnosed with stage four multiple myeloma and given three to six months to live during the time she was caring for her daughter. “This was very hard for my mother,” says Jackie. “She knew I had stage four cancer and she wanted to fight like I did. She fought, but cancer took her life 14 months following her diagnosis.”
Despite all she has endured, Jackie remains optimistic. With the sun shining into her beloved home, she sits as a beacon of strength for everyone who knows her: “What happened to me hit close to home for a lot people. It’s frightening to witness how much your life can change overnight. ” She relies on her humor to help her cope. “One evening when my sister and I were getting ready to go out, it hit me how she looked compared to my own appearance, I didn’t give in to my grief, I played it off as a joke. I had the best Halloween costume,” she says with a laugh.
In the five years since her diagnosis, she has endured overwhelming physical and emotional hardships yet she still focuses on her blessings and gratitude. “When I was first diagnosed I was so grateful that it was me and not my daughter,” she says. “At the time, I had two friends whose children were suffering from cancer, and I was thankful my daughter wasn’t suffering.” Jackie fails to find the words to thank the many people who have supported her over the years. “I can never really thank them enough.”
Jackie even credits her cancer for bringing her a love she may otherwise have never known. “If I hadn’t gotten cancer; if I had taken the job in Washington then I may not have married Harris [whom I had known since childhood],” she says. “He saved me. When I was diagnosed, we had just starting dating – we were not far into our relationship. I remember telling him he didn’t need to do this and suffer beside me.”
Harris has never left her side. He spent two nights beside her bed after her first surgery. He cleaned her eye after the second surgery when the wound needed to remain open; the bone exposed. He and his 25-year-old electrical business relocated from North Carolina to Warrenton to be with Jackie, so she could remain with her daughter. Fittingly, the couple married on Valentine’s Day in 2015.
Jackie’s days are quieter now but she tries not to dwell on the reconstructive surgeries which are still in her future. Although she is unable to participate in many activities she once enjoyed, she has discovered a hidden talent as a watercolor artist. Even with her impaired vision and limited use of her arms, she has embraced this newly found talent – having never picked up a brush before this – and took classes from Toni Bragg. Her amazing artwork is now for sale at Local Thirty-Five on Main Street. She is also now a Deacon at her church.
As far as her future is concerned, Jackie’s doctor in North Carolina said his goal was to make sure she walked through his door in 10 years. Now halfway to that date, Jackie doesn’t look too far ahead, but hopes to see her daughter graduate from high school in a couple of years.
Since the brain cancer was inoperable, Jackie is not cancer free. She knows at some point it will metastasize. Faced with this hard reality, she maintains her selflessness and says only that she hopes it moves quickly, to spare her husband and daughter from the prolonged pain of watching her suffer. Until that day, Jackie will be surrounded by love and will share her message to focus on the positive, even when faced with mounting adversity.
Journal Entry ~ Mother’s Day, May 29, 2014
“Love and care for each other each day. See your blessings in all of your struggles. They are there, and they are great.” — Jackie Yongue