Cancer battle inspires community
During the years she worked as a hospice nurse, Rhonda Lee of Eagle helped many area residents as they struggled with terminal illness.Now facing her own battle with a rare, untreatable cancer, Lee has felt the community come to her aid.3People I don1t even know are being like a family to me, she says. 3What goes around comes around. When you are good to people, it comes back to you.Lee learned about her cancer nearly a year ago. She was working as a cognitive needs special education aide when she collapsed at school. Lee knew she didn1t feel quite right, but she did not suspect how seriously ill she was.Lee was diagnosed with insular thyroid carcinoma.3If it was just thyroid cancer, I1d be fine, she says. 3But this is extremely rare, and it is an aggressive cancer.Her tumor was so unusual, in fact, a biopsy was sent to Milan, Italy, for examination. The prognosis for her disease is not bright<doctors have told her she has one to four years to live.But Lee has an indomitable spirit and a strong will. She says she believes she can beat those odds.3If you say you are going to die, then you are going to die. I plan to have a future, she says. 3My whole thing is my mind and my spirit. I always say I have cancer, cancer doesn1t have me.3I not denying the cancer in any way. If anything, I am accepting it. But cancer hates laughter, and I try to laugh a lot.3She is such an inspiration to everyone here, says Sonja Beasley, a secretary at Gypsum Creek Middle School and a co-worker of Lee1s. 3She has a tremendous attitude and spirit. The kids just love her.Local rootsLee has been a resident of Eagle County since her family moved to the valley in 1968. Her father, Dwight Lee, taught at Eagle Valley Elementary School for 24 years before retiring.While she grew in Wichita, Kan., Lee followed her parents to Eagle and worked as a governess one of Vail1s first mayors<Ted Kindel and his wife, Nancy.Lee eventually married, went on to have her own family<sons Scott, 32, Chad, 30 and Tanner, 25. She also graduated with a nursing degree from a college in Missouri. After a number of years, she returned to Eagle County.3I became a nurse and worked for Dr. Jack Eck for many years, she says. 3Then I became a hospice nurse.With the birth of her daughter Matyson, now 11, single mother Lee started to rethink her nursing career.3Being a hospice nurse, I would travel 2,000 miles in one month, she says. Then she saw an advertisement by the Eagle County School District for a special education aid. Even before she went to nursing school, Lee considered becoming a teacher thinking her health care background might be a boon as a special education aid.3When this job came about, I knew this was what I am supposed to be doing, she says. 3Thirty-two years later, I am doing what I was supposed to be doing.3I love my job, Lee adds with considerable enthusiasm.True vocationIn addition to the rewards she finds in working with kids with special needs, Lee enjoys a schedule that gives her time off with 3my best friend Matyson.When she received word about her illness, Lee freely shared the information with her students.3I was blunt with them. They know what is going on, she says. 3They look up to me, and it helps them deal with their own disabilities.Her forthright nature also moved students into action. Families from Gypsum Creek Elementary School have raised nearly $4,000 for Lee by donating dance proceedings and serving spaghetti dinners. Lee said the money has been a godsend.3The school has been unbelievable, she says. 3You really don1t know how close you are to people until you are faced with it. When people support you like this, you feel so humbled and grateful for it.That spirit of support has also extended beyond the school. The Vail Valley Charitable Fund has also stepped forward.3They have donated a very generous amount, and it just makes life a lot easier, Lee says. 3Because of them, I don1t have to worry about how am I going to pay my rent and buy groceries.The financial battleLee does have health insurance to cover many of her medical expenses, but financial concerns are present, nonetheless, because of time-off issues and treatment options. With her own doctors unable to offer treatment options, Lee sought out the Cancer Treatment Center of Tulsa, Okla. She spent three weeks at the facility earlier this year and learned that cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. She also has a spot on one lung.3At this center, they don1t accept that there is nothing to do, Lee says. Lee is now researching an experimental oxygen treatment.3That makes sense to me because I know cancer hates oxygen.As she battles cancer, Lee is focused on continuing her life. She coached the GCMS seventh- and eighth-grade girls1 basketball team this year.3That was tiring. I came home exhausted, says Lee. 3But every night, I go to bed happy and I wake up happy.3This summer, I want to garden and do things normally, she adds.Living her life, not dwelling on her mortality, is the long-term game plan for Lee.3If I have to go, I want to go with some peace, she says. 3I want to go with lots of good memories.The Ronda Lee Medical Fund has been established at Alpine Bank. Donations are welcome.