Life defined by devotion to volunteerism
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- She's what you would call a pillar of the community, volunteer extraordinaire, fervid supporter of the American Heart Association (both parents died of heart disease), the West Virginia Symphony and any cause related to nutrition and dietetics, the career field she pursued with the same passion she brings to volunteerism.
Dozens of framed photographs crowd the tabletops in her elegant Kanawha City home, many featuring her two sisters, her beloved "lifemates." Photos of family and friends and pictures of her in fashion shows and at charity galas reflect the busy and vital life of Helen Lodge.
A scrapbook filled with newspaper pictures and clippings chronicle her civic activities and her contributions as a guru of hospital dietetics at CAMC General Hospital.
Now, that vibrant life is clouded by ovarian cancer. It doesn't stop her. With characteristic grace, dignity and optimism, she embraces the gift of every day, grateful always for any opportunity to volunteer.
"I grew up in the Montgomery area. I always related to the story about Boys Town. 'He's not heavy. He's my brother.' That was Montgomery. I've written a book on Montgomery's history.
"My father worked for Carbide in Alloy. We were all from the same economic background. It was a wonderful place to grow up.
"My two sisters and I were close in age. People thought we were triplets. Mother always taught us, 'Remember, you don't have to always agree, but remember, you are always sisters.'
"We all went to West Virginia Tech, so we stayed at home. My father died at 54 and my mother died 13 months later. So the sister relationship was much stronger than for kids who went away to college.
"We babysat for three or four families. Three were physicians. One wife had been a dietitian. I was in pre-med. She kept insisting I take a class in dietetics. I liked it. So I took another class. I cannot think of another career I would rather have had. At that time, most female physicians ended up behind a desk doing administrative work.
"I started in dietetics in 1968 at Charleston General. Later, I took an internship at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati.
"I liked the clinical aspect of dietetics. I loved talking to patients. I enjoyed the challenges. At General, we had two hospital tube feedings, and we made them. We mixed things like milk and cod liver oil and orange juice. Now there must be over 500 commercially made. When I went into dietetics, it was not a science-based field. Now it is very much so.
"I also truly enjoyed the management part of it. I was called director of dietetics and food services. The hospital was growing. At one time, we had over 1,000 beds, including Arthur B. Hodges. I opened that food service, too.
"Any time I've gotten an award, I always credit the CEOs at CAMC, because they gave me the flexibility to combine volunteerism with my profession.
"I met [Dr. Willard Pushkin] at the hospital the first week I worked. We worked together on a lot of projects. We did a 560-page diet manual used at CAMC and a lot of hospitals where I did consulting -- Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey. So it served its purpose.
"I stopped dietetics when Willard was diagnosed with lung cancer. We had a very special relationship.
"When we had joint accreditation at the hospital, the administrator who did the inspection said it was the finest diet manual he'd ever seen, including Cook County in Chicago.
"When I came to Charleston, I knew I wanted to become involved in some kind of volunteerism. Having lost both parents to heart disease, I decided on the Heart Association. With my background in dietetics, it was easy to do that. We had workshops and gave talks on heart disease and stroke.
"We had three board members. I became president. Three years later, we had 32 people on the board. We taught CPR in the downtown stores. To raise money, we had Boat Day on the river and a Fly Day where people could fly over Charleston.
"A few years later, a friend asked if I would be willing to sell tickets for the Community Music Association. I did that for a couple of years and won a prize both years. Another friend asked if I would be interested in the Symphony. So I went to their galas and meetings and other events, but I was never asked to do anything.
"I think it's important to get a new member engaged. A lot of our organizations in Charleston aren't doing that. We were having a coffee at the Governor's Mansion. I told my secretary I was going to the coffee and then I was going to drop out.
"Alice Spangler, head of ticket sales for the fashion shows, approached me that day and said they needed me to sell tickets at Stone and Thomas the following week. I think that organization would have had a loss if I had wandered off.
"Then I became involved in diabetic camp. I would take my dietetic trainees. That's where they said it all came together.
"National Nutrition Week started in the 1970s. I asked Sharon Rockefeller if she would be the honorary chair. That impressed the national organization. The national president asked if I would be interested in the national level. I said no, Charleston is my home, and that's where I want to give back.
"But in 2003, I had the opportunity to do volunteerism and also something on the national level. I was chairman of public policy for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That was the year we got diabetes and end-stage renal disease approved for Medicare. That's where I got that Waterford crystal award.
"I was president twice of the West Virginia Symphony League. I started modeling for Stone and Thomas in the Symphony fashion shows in 1984. After Stone and Thomas closed, we weren't going to do the fashion show anymore. Then we decided we would bring it back to life.
"I modeled in it this past year, even in my wig. I have ovarian cancer. In 2009, I was having lower pelvic pain. My sister died of ovarian cancer. Betty Schoenbaum said to me, 'Helen, you look good from the waist up, but you need to do something about your stomach.' She's my Jewish mama.
"In 2010, they did an ultrasound but didn't find anything. I lost a kidney to cancer in 2005, so they avoided using a dye to keep from damaging my kidney. In 2012, right before I went to Europe with the Youth Symphony, I got out of bed, and I could barely straighten up.
"When I got back from Europe, they did a CT scan with contrast. Dr. Jay Leef said, 'Helen, you've got big problems.'
"They did a radical surgery. They were very pleased with it. I took eight chemo treatments. They thought everything was going to be OK. Then the CA-125 started coming back up. That's the only measure they have for ovarian cancer.
"It's very difficult to diagnose. I was having lower pelvic pain and bloating, which are among the signs, and given the fact that my sister, Melba, had ovarian cancer, maybe I should have been more proactive.
"They were very up front with me. The type I have is aggressive. It is not curable, but it is treatable.
"People say, 'You have been so gracious in handling this.' Well, Melba was a wonderful teacher. We knew we were losing her. The three of us were all together one evening. Betty left for home. She told her husband she couldn't breathe. She died suddenly of a lung embolism. Betty was the rock of our family. Three weeks later, Melba died. She was holding on for me. I told her go be with Betty, that I would be OK.
"I have never cried. I read today where a 34-year-old died of ovarian cancer. I feel pretty fortunate to be in my 70s.
"I find that people are afraid of death. I have some wonderful supportive friends. My brother-in-law, Tom Carson, is the epitome of support. But I have some friends who don't know what to say, so they don't say anything.
"At M.D. Anderson, they put me on a hormone blocker. After two months, it wasn't working. So I'm starting new chemo. It has a 15 to 20 percent chance of being effective for a time.
"I've accepted that this is something over which I have no control. When the women are fussing around about Symphony Sunday and praying for it not to rain, I always say, 'If it rains, it's God's way of saying He's still in charge.' I feel the same way about this.
"I'm still chairman of the Board of Licensed Dietitians. I worked yesterday. I'm going today to a Tech Foundation meeting in Montgomery. There are things I want to do.
"Of all the things I've done, the most important was the Holocaust Education program with Dr. Steve Jubelirer in 2002 and 2006. We bussed in about 5,000 students. One speaker was Michael Berenbaum, project director for the Holocaust Museum.
"Another thing that was very rewarding for me was the Volunteer Council for the League of American Symphonies. Our role was to counsel other volunteer orchestras. We met three times a year, usually in New York. In 2001, they asked me to do a workshop in Florida where they had 31 orchestras.
"I've had a lot of heartache, but I've had a great life. Willard was my soul mate, my partner in life. My sisters were my lifemates.
"I was embraced in love, engaged in a rewarding profession and energized through volunteerism. If I am to leave any legacy, let it be that I inspired others to become volunteers. I cannot imagine a society without volunteers. It reaffirms our humanity."Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.