Shirley Barnhart's story

In winter 2012, my mom Shirley Barnhart, began complaining that her back was hurting more than usual.

She had been the text book manager for the Illini Union Bookstore at the University of Illinois for 47 years. She was going through a book rush at the time and thought that was the cause of the increased back pain. Then she began fighting cold and flu symptoms for several months. Near the end of February 2013 she FINALLY went to the doctor’s office. My mother rarely went to the doctor for a “simple cold” or “flu bug”. We used to joke that we’d have to drag her in kicking and screaming even on her death bed.

The doctor prescribed an anti-biotic, which didn’t seem to help all that much. She went back and a chest x-ray was done. The x-ray showed compression on her right lung and little fluid in/on her left lung. Again an anti-biotic was prescribed and again it didn’t seem to help much.

By this time she also began having shortness of breath, upper abdominal pain, and diarrhea. So, on Friday March 8, 2013 I accompanied her to another doctor’s appointment. Given her symptoms the doctor issued a CT scan of her abdomen and blood work to determine if clostridium difficile was present. After a complete day at the hospital we were informed to go back to her doctor’s office.

It was there that we were told she did in fact have clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection in the intestines. Then we got the worst news of all. The CT scan also showed that she had ascites, a tumor on her intestines and a few spots on her omentum. The doctor informed us that these were significant signs of ovarian cancer.

The next week and a half brought us several doctor appointments, long days, sleepless nights, and a lot of worry. She met with her surgeon on March 20 and surgery was scheduled for Monday March 25. He was very optimistic and for the first time in a week we too began to feel optimistic and were in awe at how fast everything was getting taken care of.
However, that optimism was soon shattered. My family and I had been living with my mom for about 5 years. When I arrived home from work on Friday March 22, 2013 I found my mom. She had passed away only 3 weeks from when she was given her diagnosis. I wish I could say she was taking a nap and went peacefully, but that wasn’t the case. I wanted answers as to why exactly my mom died, so I requested an autopsy report, which showed a blot clot had entered her lungs. Being told she most likely did not suffer brought some comfort.

My mother did not deserve to die from this disease; she was only 68 years old. I know she could have had the surgery, began chemo, and beat it. She was the most selfless person I have known, very caring, and always put others before herself. She was an avid reader and had a mass collection of cookbooks, but never seemed to make any of the recipes she marked; however she did cook wonderful home-style food. She loved her grandchildren. I continue to receive cards and letters from department heads, publishing companies, professors wishing their condolences and stating how they’ve never met me in person, but had heard many, many stories of my son, George, and me.

I have begun thinking about decisions I need to make for myself, my children, and my family. Knowing that I am a mother, wife, daughter in law, niece, sister I do not want my family going through this kind of pain and loss again. Now when my doctor asks “has anyone in your family had cancer?” I have to answer yes and consider the affects this has for me and my family. Her passing has shaken my soul and shattered my heart. I will never get over losing my mom, my best friend, my confidant, my everything.

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