In Memory of Ramey Reeves
Passed in July, 2008.
Three months ago, in the art decor aisle at the Marshalls in Mount Pleasant, the vision in Ramey Reeves' left eye starts flickering like a bad light bulb. Panicked and alone, Ramey, 33, leaves her shopping cart and the tin artwork she has chosen and lies down on the sidewalk in front of the store. She calls her nutritionist, the first physician in her mind because she'd visited him an hour ago.
"I don't feel right."
He tells her to get to Nason Medical Center so a doctor can examine her. Doctors there scan her head and find something on the rear right part of her brain. It was a small mass. That begins a series of bad news.
"It could be MS," the doctor tells her, "or a brain tumor."
Thousands of people each year from all walks of life learn they have a brain tumor. But Ramey is about to be diagnosed with one of the most stubborn and dangerous of all.
In the coming weeks, she will experience dizziness and despair. She will find loyalty in family and friends, yet face loneliness in her affliction. She will fear losing her eyesight and the real possibility of leaving everyone far too early. And the very thing that Ramey holds dearest in life — her faith that Jesus is in control — will be tested like never before.
A rock star is born.
I met Ramey in 1995 when I was a reporter with the college newspaper. I was working on a story about a Christian nightclub that opened in Lynchburg, Va., near Liberty University where we both went to school. A band performed that night, and Ramey was the lead singer. Even then, at 21 years old and somewhere around 100 pounds, Ramey took complete control of a room. Dancing and working both ends of the stage, she belted out the words, holding the microphone with one hand and slapping the hands of those in the front row.
A rock star already had been born.
It's been 13 years since we met, and Ramey now serves as the unofficial ambassador of our church, The Crossover on Savannah Highway in West Ashley. When new people walk through the door, Pastor Sean Nelson offers a quick hello, hands them a bulletin and snags Ramey to meet them. "She really just kind of glows," Nelson says. "She just makes people feel so welcome and at ease."
Ramey in the room just puts a smile on your face. She spontaneously breaks into song. And she's always befriending strangers. Recently, she met an older woman at a gas station and chose to pay for her fill-up. The two ended up praying, and Ramey gave her a CD of her praise music. Ramey carries a stack of her music with her at all times, just in case she comes across someone who might need it.
Before the tumor, Ramey was around my house quite a bit. She'd drop by unannounced, bursting through the front door like a twister of joy, freely rummaging through the fridge and pantry, all the while rambling to my wife.
Ramey lives in Hanahan with her husband, John; their 7-year-old son, Judah; and their dog, Punky. Ramey met John in college while working in the cafeteria. She was taking students' photos for their cafeteria cards, and one day John took a seat in front of her.
Theirs was a casual acquaintance, saying "hi" in the hallway, until three years after they met, when Ramey made her big move. She ran up to John with a box of hair color and asked him if that shade would work on her. His response is family legend: "Any color would look good on you."
John is a sergeant with the Charleston Police Department and serves on the city's SWAT team. Ramey works as a part-time "patient actress," where she acts out a full script for medical students at MUSC. On some days she's a woman with breast cancer. On others she's a strung-out schizophrenic homeless woman. The students are supposed to ask Ramey questions and come to the right diagnosis.
Fear and faith
When she hears the word "tumor," Ramey feels fear like she's never felt before. She begins a series of consultations and second opinions. Doctors order her to take aggressive steroids to reduce inflammation in her brain. And Ramey chooses to go entirely organic because she wants to fight the tumor with everything she can. She cuts out anything injected with hormones or grown with fertilizers and considers no longer using her cell phone after hearing that it might be a possible cause of brain tumors.
But new symptoms show up. She loses sense of where her left arm is. And she experiences brief moments of euphoria, so extreme that she weeps. Her equilibrium grows shaky, making her so dizzy that she has to grab her mother's arm to help her walk.
Friends at church cook her meals, pray and fast. Her female friends at church hold a party where they pray over her and shower her with homemade gifts.
But although Ramey is fighting the tumor with everything humanly possible, doctors deliver a crushing blow two weeks after she starts taking steroids. Her second MRI shows the tumor appears to have moved and changed shape. Doctors worry that it will start affecting her motor skills and speech.
Her family, friends, the entire church and Ramey all grieve. "You just expect good things to happen to her," Nelson says. "But this lets the wind out of your sails."
The situation is so serious that Ramey's friend from Georgia starts searching the Internet for the best brain surgeon. The friend finds Allan Friedman at Duke University Hospital, who has been removing tumors just like Ramey's for 10 years. The hospital in Durham specializes in neurosurgery, and Friedman is considered one of the best.
Ramey sends her medical reports to Friedman, and almost simultaneously, a local doctor also recommends the same neurosurgeon.
The tumor is called an Anaplastic Astrocytoma. It sends cells into the brain that cannot be removed. Whether the tumor is benign or malignant, no one knows.
When they meet, Friedman recommends removal, whether or not it's cancer. He tells Ramey they will give her anesthesia and then cut out a section of the back of her skull. They will then wake her up while they remove the tumor and repeatedly will ask her questions to determine whether she is losing certain functions, mainly her eyesight, which is common during this procedure.
Recovery will be excruciating. At first she'll struggle to see. Her head will throb, and she'll have to stay close to the hospital for more than a week after the operation.
In the days leading up to surgery, Ramey grows less frightened and more eager for her symptoms to go away. She buys bright things for her home and talks of buying a new camera. Ever the artist, she purchases a huge blank canvas and hangs it on a wall. Maybe, she says, she bought this because she was scared of losing her eyesight.
She also keeps her sense of humor. She brags about the 12 pounds she's lost thanks to the "bt" or "brain tumor" diet. And she jokingly tells John what to do should the doctors "leave me on the table." "Don't leave me a vegetable very long," she tells John, pausing before saying, "but maybe like 60 days."
In the face of it all, Ramey says repeatedly that Jesus has a plan for everything that happens to her. She says only good will come from the tumor, even if the result is not what she hopes for.
Hers is an unshakable faith. And John is just as sturdy. About a week before the operation, he talks about God's plan. There are no tragedies or accidents for those who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior, he says. The tumor "was authorized by God."
And if the tumor causes death, he says, then he'll accept that. God wouldn't call Ramey home if she hadn't finished her mission on earth. "She's really at the top of her game," John says of her spiritual life. "If the Lord calls her over, then you have to be envious of that."
Don't misunderstand; John's love for Ramey is obvious. He never takes his eyes off her when she speaks. He waits on her, he cooks for her, he adores her.
Panic in her voice
The morning the nurses take Ramey to surgery, on March 20, John's eyes well with tears. Before they roll Ramey away, her family prays. "This is the option God gave us," says her father, Terry Harder, a retired minister. "They're gonna get it all."
Surgery is scheduled for 10 a.m., but they take Ramey at 8:30 a.m. It happens so suddenly. While they push Ramey down the hallway, her sense of humor vanishes. "John," she says. "Don't leave me a vegetable." On the elevator ride down, Ramey confesses.
"John, do you forgive me for spending money all this week?" she says of the random stuff she bought for the house. "Don't say that," John says. "No John. Do you forgive me?"
The elevator door slides open, and the nurse spins Ramey's bed around and pushes it toward the double doors leading to the operating room. Quickly, Ramey goes one by one through her family, telling each person at her bed that she loves them. Right before the double doors swing back, she shouts one last thing. It's to me. "And I love you too Andy."
During surgery, family and friends sit around a large table in front of empty coffee cups in the hospital cafeteria, remembering good times, laughing and sharing stories about previous vacations and jobs. John keeps a beeper in front of him that the nurses have given him. It looks just like the kind you get at Outback Steakhouse when the place is packed. At noon, it beeps and everyone hopes that means surgery is over. But when John calls the nurse, he learns surgery has just started.
At 3 p.m. the beeper lights up again, and John calls to learn that Friedman is closing Ramey's skull. The family moves to the third floor to await word. Two hours later, Friedman tells them how it went.
The doctor removed the entire mass, which was the size of a lemon. He calls it a Grade III tumor, with a Grade IV being the worst. Over the course of the operation, Ramey likely lost some eyesight. But only time will tell how much.
When the doctor observed the mass and touched it, the tumor became angry and turned purple, and he knew what this meant. It was malignant, not benign. Cancer lived inside Ramey's brain. In cases like this, before the tumor is removed, its cells reach other parts of the brain. "The problem is they can grow into masses," Friedman says. "They almost always come back." The doctor wants Ramey to consider chemotherapy, and possibly radiation, to fight the remaining, hidden cells.
Heading through the hospital's underground tunnel to the parking garage, Ramey's parents walk ahead. Her sister, Shayna, walks behind, on her own, crying. Ramey's closest friends from Lynchburg have already started heading home with Ramey's and John's son. They plan to watch Judah for at least a week. When friend Sunshine Lewis gets the call and hears the doctor's news, she steers the car off the road, hits the brakes, gets out and dry heaves.
Over the course of the night, the family mulls over the news, discusses it and begins to realize that everything they heard they already had been told to expect.
The next morning, Ramey is moved out of the intensive care unit to a recovery room. When she wakes at 8 a.m., she tells the nurse to send her family in. But her family is still sleeping at the hotel. A few minutes later, through her blurry vision, Ramey sees another nurse pass by. Again she asks for her family to be sent in. No one comes.
Once her family arrives at 10 a.m., Ramey chides everyone. When they ask how she feels, she complains of pain, then retells the sad story of how no one came. No doubt, Ramey's repetition is intentional. She is trying to be funny, and everyone laughs.
The wound on Ramey's skull is raw, but the color has returned to her face, and the bags have vanished under her eyes. But oh, she hurts. "This is absolutely horrendous," she whispers. She huddles under a quilt woven with the words "Jesus be the center, be my source, be my light." John caresses her arm. Her mom rubs her feet. Then Ramey asks to pray.
Under heavy painkillers, Ramey can't see, her voice is slurred, but despite this she quotes from Ephesians, the part about "putting on the whole armor of God" when you face adversity. She does not ask for pity. She does not ask to be spared.
She speaks with boldness. "Jesus, I will continue to praise your name through this, and I love you. From the bottom of my heart, even if I were to go home with you today, then I will always be your child."
Ramey passed away in July, 2008.
Reach Andrew Lyons at 937-4799 or email@example.com.