Sometimes when life seems bleakest, a ray of sunshine appears.
That is the case with a cancer victim from Texas who is a former member of the FBI, and the love she has received from the congregation of Slate Mountain Baptist Church on N.C. 103.
Dawn Thomas, 50, and her husband Derrick had pretty much reached the end of their line this past winter when Dawn’s treatment was ending at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. The local church came to the rescue after one of its members received a liver transplant there and became acquainted with — and entranced by — the cancer patient, who has impressed everyone by what the pastor’s wife, Marilyn McMillian, calls her “sweet spirit.”
But the ordeal faced by Dawn — who could serve as a poster child for what can happen to an American family when a deadly illness strikes — didn’t begin there. It had started about seven years before in Houston, when she began experiencing health problems and went to see a doctor.
“I put my hand on the CVS door,” she said of a subsequent visit to a pharmacy there, “and woke up four months later.”
Dawn had fallen into a coma due to a massive tumor on her brain, which not only robbed her of consciousness for months but the ability to walk, talk and see. And while she was out, her mother and sister died.
“When I woke up, I was still in my childhood,” she recalled Tuesday afternoon during an interview at the church, surrounded by members of her “second family” there who have taken the Thomases under their wing.
“I didn’t know any of the people I had known throughout life,” Dawn added. “There are still things I don’t remember.”
Although her memory and faculties later would return, this was just the start of Dawn’s medical odyssey, which also has included a 5-pound tumor being found in her abdomen, touching her liver and lungs. Her list of problems also includes hypertension; Addison’s disease, a disorder in which the adrenal glands produce insufficient amounts of certain hormones; and the eventual possibility of kidney dialysis.
Since 2007 she has endured a string of biopsies, surgical procedures, chemotherapy and radiation treatments and the other usual suspects surrounding a cancer diagnosis.
Finances Wiped Out
In an era of skyrocketing medical costs, Dawn’s illness took its toll on her and Derrick’s finances. She had served in the military and worked in government, notably with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Houston.
“We spent probably $400,000 within a seven-year period — which was pretty much everything we owned,” Dawn said. The two lost their house and were reduced to selling or pawning personal property, even their wedding rings, to get by.
“He was trying to work and take care of me at the same time, but he couldn’t do it alone,” Dawn said of Derrick, who drove trucks and heavy equipment. Finally, he was unable to work anymore because of her health-care needs.
Meanwhile, the medical expenses mounted, eventually reaching the $2 million mark, which Dawn describes as a magic number, or limit, as to how much could be accumulated at her hospital in Houston. As a result, she no longer could receive treatment at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center, one of the original three comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S.
The staff there endeavored to find a new facility elsewhere to treat Dawn, which is how she wound up at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte. This meant kind of a return home for the patient, who originally was from eastern North Carolina. Her travels back and forth between Charlotte and Houston had to occur by buses and trains since Dawn was unable to fly.
However, she and Derrick faced yet another crisis this past February when her treatment ended in Charlotte.
Dawn, who is still classified as a Stage 4 cancer patient — meaning the disease has spread from where it started and is advanced — stayed with Derrick at Hospitality House of Charlotte. It is a facility that provides shelter to families while their loved ones receive treatment at nearby hospitals.
While there, she met Deborah Epperson from Surry County, who was at the Charlotte hospital for a liver transplant, and later Deborah’s husband Richard, who both attend Slate Mountain Baptist Church.
“She just said Dawn had a glow,” Richard said of his wife’s encounter with the cancer patient last fall.
Nowhere To Go
In February as her treatment in Charlotte was ending, the Thomases had no clue about where they would land next. “We didn’t know how we were going to go back to Texas,” Dawn said. “We had lost everything back there anyway.”
That’s when Richard Epperson decided to intervene.
“The more I got to know her,” he said of Dawn, “the more I felt in my heart ‘we’ve got to do something.’”
The day she had to leave Charlotte, the Eppersons pulled up in their vehicle and took Dawn and Derrick back to their home in Surry County.
“We came here to stay with Deborah and Richard,” Dawn said of the low-key move. “I didn’t want anybody to know the depth of my situation.”
Yet other church-goers soon welcomed Dawn and Derrick into their fold, embracing the couple’s plight and quickly growing to love them. This was evident by seven members of the congregation taking part in Tuesday’s interview with Dawn because they were so anxious to help tell the story of the 100-year-old church’s first black members.
“They have welcomed us with open arms as a part of their church,” Dawn said.
The Slate Mountain group has supplied money, food and other needs of the couple, who moved into an apartment in nearby Ararat, Virginia, with the help of congregation members. That included a housewarming shower one Sunday afternoon after church services.
“They even had bags filled with sacks of potatoes,” said Dawn, whose devout religious leanings become quickly evident when she meets someone for the first time.
While the transition to the apartment was under way, along came church member Reta Nichols with a load of items to furnish the new home, from the kitchen to the living room. “And she took me to the store like a little kid,” Dawn said of a shopping trip to buy more items.
One of the most recent gestures has involved the church pledging money to buy a vehicle for the couple, who have been using a borrowed one. And they even have wedding rings now.
Another ray of hope flickering through the clouds along the way involved Derrick securing a job with Sowers Construction Co. in Mount Airy.
Dawn believes all this hasn’t happened by chance, but is part of God’s plan. “He has had a divine appointment for everything we faced,” she said. “I really feel like Richard and everybody in this church is part of God’s divine appointment in my life.”
Meanwhile, Nichols developed an immediate fondness for Dawn, who she said never complains no matter how bad she might feel.
“She’s a sweetheart of a woman,” said Nichols, who added that people in the church have received much in return through their association with Dawn and Derrick. “She thinks we’ve done a lot for her — she doesn’t know what she’s done for us, spiritually.”
Mary Tilley, the mother-in-law of the Rev. Chris McMillian, the church pastor, agreed. “We’re glad God sent her here,” she said of Dawn. “She has been such an inspiration to our church. She has given us more than we have given her.”
McMillian, who has pastored Slate Mountain Baptist for seven years and is a lifelong member of the church, agreed that it was almost as if Dawn cast a spell on the congregation.
“We fell in love with her the moment she walked through the door,” he said. “Her personality is never about Dawn — she cares more for everyone else than she does for herself — everything she does is about helping others.”
McMillian relayed one account of Dawn’s caring and giving while she was working for the FBI in Houston. She and another agent were conducting an investigation in a particularly bad neighborhood, which Dawn stepped out of her professional role to help.
She spent $2 on hot dogs and buns for a free cookout at a church there to rally the neighbors and bring about change, which led to a massive improvement effort. “And that mission today is still going on,” McMillian said of a gesture that grew into a charitable event bringing in $600,000 per year in corporate donations for revitalization of the neighborhood.
“And that’s something she started with $2,” McMillian said of Dawn. Even in the state she is in, the cancer patient is constantly on the telephone and writing letters as part of her fundraising work.
“If she had her health, there’s no telling what she would be into right now,” McMillian added.
Dawn still considers herself pretty fortunate, not only in terms of what the church has done for her but the love it represents.
“God knew at this stage of my life, I needed family,” she said, which has been amply supplied by those at Slate Mountain.
“They’ve been mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers to us,” Dawn added. “I have not been loved on so much since I was a baby.”
And such support has helped the transplanted Texan remain optimistic about her medical condition.
“I asked them (doctors) not to tell me about life expectancies and things like that — if it’s not good, I don’t want to know,” Dawn confided.
“I refuse to lay down.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.