(This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear in the Saturday, Aug. 30 edition)
Gail Murray was growing weary of being tired. By day’s end, after putting in a full day at her job with the Bartow Community Redevelopment Agency, she was sapped, with little or no energy to spare.
“Around the first of the year, I began to notice I was rundown and tired,” said Murray. “By the end of the day, I could hardly put one foot in front of the other.”
At first she thought it was due to menopause because some of the symptoms she was experiencing were those associated with the condition. However, she began to question whether it was that because she was beginning to find it difficult to get up in the mornings.
“I just knew something was not right,” she said. She added that whatever she was going through, provided it was not menopause, had her stumped, because throughout most of her life she had never had a major illness and until recently, never felt physically bad.
Finally, she made an appointment to see her doctor. That was late March/early April and she had bloodwork done. Following her appointment, she joined her husband, Tony, where they met for lunch. As they dined her doctor called. He told her she needed to immediately go to Lakeland Regional Medical Center.
Her red blood cell count was abnormally low. The normal range is between 12 and 18, she said. Hers was at six.
Once at LRMC, doctors did upper and lower GIs. They also conducted a colonoscopy. The following day they did a CT scan. (A GI is a study of the gastrointestinal tract. A CT (computed tomography) scan uses X-rays to make detailed pictures of structures inside of the body. (Sources: WebMD.com). The diagnosis was not good. She had renal cancer; but it was not limited to only that.
“That’s when they found the tumor on my kidney, spots on my lungs and ileac (hip) bone,” she said. Being diagnosed with that form of cancer came as a shock.
“If they had told me I had breast cancer I wouldn’t have nearly been shocked.
“Normally, they see this in people who smoke or who are working with chemicals,” she said. “Nor do I have a family history.”
However, what she was also told was that renal cancer does not respond to chemotherapy. It was also suggested (unofficially by a nurse) that it might be best for Murray to get her personal affairs in order. At that point in time, Tina Spath, a good friend of Murray’s was visiting.
“When the nurse told Gail to get her affairs in order? Oh my God, who would tell that?” said Tina Spath. “I think she (Murray) said, ‘Do I think I have that long to live?’”
Spath then excused herself from her visit. A short while later, Murray’s husband, Tony, arrived. He told her Tina was on her cellphone having an animated conversation and speaking in Spanish. It turned out that Spath had made several calls. One of them was to an uncle in Texas who is a kidney specialist; that was the one in Spanish. She also spoke with several other doctors. Then there was the call to Joanne Reall.
“You’ve just got to help me,” said Spath of her conversation with Reall. Spath knew Reall because the latter (and her husband, who is with the Bartow Police Department) had been a customer at Spath Jewelers. Through that a friendship developed, and Spath was aware that Reall is a cancer survivor.
Reall remembered that phone call. It brought back memories of her bout with renal cancer. At the time, she had not been feeling well and it was thought she might be having gall bladder problems. An ultrasound indicated she had a tumor on a kidney. The news was devastating. But it also came at a most propitious time.
“As luck would have it, I was working at Bartow Ford as a finance manager,” said Reall. A customer was in her office that day and noticed something was troubling her. Reall said he gently prodded her into telling him what was the matter. His response was that of a miracle, she said. “He told me, ‘One of my best friends is an oncologist of urology at Moffit.’ He asked me if he could call his friend for me and I said yes.”
That friend was Dr. Phillippe Spiess, and when Spiess got the call he immediately arranged for Reall to see him. Reall said the doctor saved her life. The cancer she had was in the beginning stage and Spiesse was able to remove it. Reall lost only 15 percent of her kidney.
So when Spath contacted Reall, who added she also was contacted by Mary Ann Harrell, Reall reached out to Murray.
“I talked to Gail at Lakeland Regional Medical Center. I told her about him (Spiess),” said Reall. “I told her my story and asked Gail if I could contact him for her and she said yes.”
That was on a Sunday. With that, Spiess was contacted and told the situation. The next day, Monday, Spiess had an office staff worker contact Murray. The day after, Tuesday, Murray met with Spiess.
He did his own tests, and the test results differed sharply from those done at LRMC. He determined an entire kidney was cancerous and would have to be removed. Not only that, but that the cancer had intruded upon her inferior vena cava (the large vein that carries deoxygenated blood from the lower half of the body into the right atrium of the heart). Several days later, the surgery was performed at Tampa General Hospital.
Spath, Murray, Reall and others do not believe any of this was coincidence. To a person, each believes this was ordained by a higher authority.
“It’s amazing how God sends his message,” said Spath. “It was Godsend.”
(Part two: Murray the first in Florida to qualify for experimental program)