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A Tough Old Bird
Ruth Smith

Back in 1982 , when I was fifty-eight years old, I went to different doctors because my leg was bothering me, and I was unable to walk. It felt like a screw was going in. None of the doctors could find out what was wrong with me, and I was beginning to wonder if my pain was in my head. When I was on crutches and unable to walk, my orthopedist wheeled me into UCSF/Mount Zion Hospital and said, "We're going to find out what's wrong with you from the tip of your head to the bottom of your toes." I never will forget that.

He said he was going to find the answer to my problem if it was the last thing he did. He couldn't understand why I couldn't walk. So an evaluation was done which included CAT scans and mammograms.

The mammogram showed a shadow. A breast tumor was suspected, and the biopsy turned out to be cancer. The orthopedist called me on the phone and told me that he was going to have a doctor, an oncologist he knew, give me a call and see me soon.

When he said that, I laughed, and he asked what I was laughing about. I told him that I knew the oncologist he was referring me to. That very doctor had looked after my sister about five years before when she had lung mesothelioma, an asbestos-related cancer, and he did a good job with her. I was just happy to be in somebody's hands that I already knew.

When the oncologist came in, wearing his white coat, he said, "Your orthopedist told me to come in and talk to you about the test results."

I asked the doctor, "Don't you know me?" and just laughed. The seriousness hadn't really taken hold of me yet.

After he looked me over, he said, "Ruth, you know what? As long as I'm able to do anything for you, you won't die of this tumor. I'll do everything I can." That sounded like pure gospel to me.

After the lumpectomy, I had radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Over the years, I've had excellent care, and I could have had no better doctors. Even today, when I come into my doctor's office, I forget what's wrong with me. The positive attitude I get from him and his wife gives me the strength to keep going. They give me hope.

One time, I fell asleep in his office. When I awoke I wrote, "Hope is the companion of power and the mother of success."

The cancer recurred in l995, but it took me some time to realize it. I don't fault my doctors or the testing they did at the time, because I wasn't listening. Your body tells you one thing, but your mind is elsewhere. I was too busy at the time to really notice what was going on with me until it surfaced in an eruption of cancer lumps.

On my first visit with a new surgeon, he was very straight with me about my treatment. I was scheduled to have a double mastectomy, with the potential removal of part of my chest wall (sternum and ribs). He looked at my age, my health, and the facts that I've had so many surgeries and so much happen to me through the years. He told me all the possible problems I might have if I was on the surgical table.

My daughter was present, sitting off in the corner crying her heart out. She asked, "Mom, do you really want to go through with this?"

It was up to me to make the decision, and I didn't say a word until the doctor finished. I thought, my goodness, out of all the doctors over all the years, this one here doesn't pull any punches. I challenged him by saying, "Doctor, I was referred to you by my oncologist as one of the best. I'm not putting you on the spot, but I believe that if you do what you're supposed to do and this works, then fine. If it doesn't work, I'm not holding you accountable, because God's going to be in the room with me. I'm a God-fearing person, and I know that whatever you do, God's going to be taking care of Ruth Smith. Okay? And if I don't make it, it's not your fault."

He said, "You know, Mrs. Smith, you're a tough, old bird."

I said to him, "I'm going through with the double mastectomy and the chest wall surgery. If you don't do it, I'll go home and take a butcher knife and do the job myself." I have to admit I like to joke around and have a little fun. But I did believe that, with the help and the inspiration of my good doctors and God, I could make it. I wasn't going to give up.

On the first anniversary of that surgery, I was seventy-two. My plastic surgeon did a fantastic skin graft, which also gave me a tummy tuck. I think I wear my clothes very well since my radical mastectomy.

My life is dedicated to helping others make it. My life is not over yet. I've had a lot of chances not to be here today, but with the help of God and my doctors, I'm still here.

I've had a rough life. I was a single mother with three children, so I had to work hard. But I've had good spiritual guidance, and it helped that my father was a strong man. I give him credit for my being as strong as I am.

When my children were teenagers and I was a single parent, I strove for them to have an education, something I didn't have myself. I didn't go past high school. All three of my children were educated through college.

I have a beautiful family that is very devoted to me. I helped one child go through private school on a scholarship. Professionally, my children are successful. One of my daughters is the Director of Operations for the Department of Public Works for San Francisco.

I have no time to sit down and worry about myself, Ruth Smith. My phone rings constantly. I'm usually not at home. I just let the door slam me in the back as I leave. When I'm having my bad-feeling days, I get out there on the streets. I just keep going. I don't sit around and mope. I'm very independent and outspoken.

I am the senior member of a group of women I work with, and they don't want me to give up either. A lot of them get low in spirit and will not take the reins and go on. I'm trying to give them the reins. They're younger. They're more able, but they won't do it. If I'm not there, the clock will stop ticking. This actually helps me to go on. I have a lot of children out there. All these ladies are my children. Some of them are in their forties and fifties.

I'm also an advocate for out-of-home placement of children. I speak for those who can't speak for themselves. I counsel families that are desperate in one way or another -- about their kids, their husbands and the struggles of everyday living. I encourage them by telling them about my experiences and how I would do it. "Don't give up," I say.

What gives me the will to live? My family, my God, and my interest in children and people. I have a lot of goals. Trying to find happiness is one of my goals, and I have found it within myself and my children and other families. Every weekend, I talk to my mother's family and my aunts. They all call me or I call them, so we have a network. I like that. I like networking with my family, to keep in close contact with them. I love to be with people. I like to share things with them.

I wrote a little poem today while I was waiting for my doctor. It kind of summarizes the way I look at things.
Today I sang a little song and I felt my heart grow light
And walked a little mile with not a cloud in sight.
Today I smiled and things didn't look so bad.
Today I shared with everyone else a bit of hope I had.

Today I worked with what I had, didn't long for any more,
And what had seemed like hours with my family at my door.
Today, I loved a little more, complained a little less.
And in the giving of myself, I forgot my weariness.

l998 Update
When I'm depressed, I get out of the house and go and let the door hit me in the back. I go see friends and talk about other things and try to forget my health problems.

I'm on the San Francisco Department of Human Services' Family Preservation Committee, which helps keep families together. It's a struggle to get anything done with the bureaucracy.

When I'm up, I just keep doing everything I can; and when I'm down, I talk to my nurse at the doctor's office and get a lift. I'm trying to get over this illness, but I do slow down at times. I plan to do good as long as I can move.

Last week I came to a committee meeting and everyone got up to give me a seat, but there was a seat in the front which was available.

Then I was asked, "How did you get here?"

I answered "I drove." They just could not believe it. They were amazed and surprised. But I like surprising people who think I am already six feet under.

The will to live? It is knowing that you can do something for someone else. That keeps you going.

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First appeared April 28, 2008; updated June 12, 2009