Tom White

Tom White

A Blow Comes with Blessings

Tom White and his wife, Merrie Jo, battled Tom’s cancer with exceptional grace and the unfailing support of the care team at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital.

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July 3, 2011. That’s the day Merrie Jo White says her family “got hit by the cancer train.” It’s the day her husband, Tom, entered Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital’s emergency department with back and stomach pain—and was told he had lymphoma, a serious blood cancer. An active 49-year-old accustomed to hard physical work, Tom was shocked. Merrie Jo says, “I kept expecting the doctor to say, ‘Oh, wait . . . sorry, wrong room.’”

A Plan Evolves

Tom was admitted for more testing. Merrie Jo called the Whites’ three children, friends and fellow members of First Baptist Church, Downers Grove. When an army of caring people flooded the room, she thought the nursing staff might be annoyed. Instead, charge nurse Karen Harris was kind—and protective of Tom and Merrie Jo’s need for support. Although they were stunned, the stage was set for the Whites’ cancer journey. It would be long and arduous, but they would be carried by faith, family and friends—and an extraordinary team of caregivers.

Oncologist Dennis Azuma, MD, suspected Tom had a rare form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma called mantle cell lymphoma. Before beginning the harsh treatment required for it, Dr. Azuma sent out an additional bone marrow biopsy to ensure the correct diagnosis—and his suspicions were confirmed.

Tom ultimately needed to have a stem cell transplant at a university facility, but he chose to stick with Good Samaritan Hospital for his inpatient chemotherapy and ongoing care. He trusted Dr. Azuma, felt confident in the quality of care at the hospital, and wanted to make things easier for his wife by staying close to their Westmont home. “The way our plan worked out was fabulous,” he says.

Life at the Hospital

From August until Christmas, 2011, the Whites became “regulars” at Good Samaritan Hospital. To prepare for the transplant, Tom underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, each one requiring at least a one-week inpatient stay. The chemotherapy used is extra strong to kill all the cancer cells, but it also compromises the immune system. As a result, Tom was vulnerable to infection and often returned to the hospital between treatments to be re-admitted with a high fever. Despite the exhaustion of frequent hospitalizations, Tom and Merrie Jo regard this chapter of their lives as one filled with blessings. Tom has many stories about nurses and caregivers who went out of their way to explain things carefully, to listen and respond, no matter how busy they were.

“They are always there for you,” he says. A person of deep faith, he was comforted by others praying for him, and to give back he prayed for his caregivers. He and Merrie Jo also prayed with some patients on the unit when they got bad news. “We wouldn’t wish this experience on anyone. But the blessing was that God used us to shine his love on others,” Merrie Jo says.

The Whites spent so much time at the hospital that they bonded not only with the nurses and patient care technicians, but also with volunteers, food servers and housekeepers—and they found that even the smallest kindnesses make a big difference to patients and their families. They remember the food server who made sure their son, Tommy, had root beer, his favorite drink. They treasure the valet parking staff who left Merrie Jo’s car right in front of the building and returned the keys to her—ensuring her safety when she left late at night. “The people of Good Samaritan Hospital took good care of Tom, but they also took care of me,” Merrie Jo says. “When I had to go home and rest, I felt comfortable because I knew I was leaving him in good hands.”

Amazing Grace

Throughout their ordeal, amazing things happened to Tom and Merrie Jo that made them more certain of God’s love and more grateful for the people in their lives. Members of First Baptist not only prayed, but also offered practical help like getting Tom’s truck repaired. The Whites’ children, Tommy, Alisha and Leslie—who came up from her home in Champaign—stepped up in a big way and did their best to help the dad who had always helped them.

Tom’s treatment was successful, and he has been in remission and back at his job in public works at the Village of Bellwood for a year and a half. He checks in with Dr. Azuma every six months and has physical therapy at the hospital to build up his strength. Tom and Merrie Jo often visit the many folks they know at Good Samaritan Hospital—and still remember them in their prayers.

Merrie Jo says Tom is her hero for choosing to fight his cancer. Tom says his wife is his hero for walking beside him every step of the way. We say they are both people of unflagging courage and steadfast hope.

First published: Fall 2013