Gail Harvell figured Sept. 6, 2012, would be a routine day. The retired mother of three from Harrisburg drove to a Charlotte-area hospital for a mammogram, as she had done many times over the years.
She told a nurse about something she’d noticed recently: “I like to sleep on my left side. I felt like there was something between my body and the sheet. I could never get the lump out from underneath.
“They didn’t seem very interested. I had a biopsy taken. When I walked into the room, she just kind of pushed the Kleenex toward me before she said anything. Then I sat down and she said, ‘You have cancer.’ It was all so cut and dried.
“I had no one with me because I thought it was going to be OK, it’s just a mammogram. So I went out to the car and cried and cried and cried. I couldn’t even see to drive, so I had to sit there for a while.”
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Myra Johnston can relate to that kind of fear and loneliness. She was also diagnosed with breast cancer – in May 2009. That was two years after she opened Health Guidance Center, a Charlotte nonprofit that provides logistical, motivational and spiritual support for critically ill people at no charge. She was divorced with three children when she started the service by dipping into her retirement money.
A longtime health care clinical services manager and therapist, as well as a licensed clinical social worker, Johnston drives from her University City-area home and takes Harvell to her doctor’s appointments. Once there, she helps her navigate the often-intimidating hospital system. Johnston said Harvell “is just a miracle in the making, I’m telling you.” Harvell said Johnston “is just an incredible person.”
Harvell didn’t turn to Johnston right away. Because her mother had gone through extremely painful chemotherapy for bone cancer, she initially opted for natural and holistic treatments. They seemed to work for a while, but her cancer showed no signs of remission and her pain was becoming unmanageable.
She didn’t feel her original hospital was an option. When she was diagnosed, “the nurse said she’d try and help me any way she could. But after I told her I wasn’t going to do chemotherapy, she had nothing else to do with me. I never heard from her again.”
Earlier this year, Harvell was talking with a neighbor who told her about Johnston. Harvell met Johnston on April 17 and eventually made her own decision to try chemotherapy. “Within 10 days, Gail was seen by an oncologist, a surgeon, had a PET scan, surgery for a core biopsy and port, and her first chemo treatment” at a Charlotte-area satellite clinic, said Madeline Gary, a friend of Harvell living in the University City area who has been with her throughout the ordeal.
Now 77, Harvell said her immediate prognosis is uncertain – she was scheduled to start a new treatment therapy in mid-October – but she feels strengthened by the unfailing support of her husband Bob, Johnston and Madeline Gary. Bob Harvell said Johnston has been the catalyst.
“I don’t know how we could have gone through this without her,” he said. “When you’re dealing with something like cancer, you don’t know the ins and outs of a big medical establishment, and that’s where Myra’s really been helpful.”
Gary raves about Health Guidance and its handful of volunteers. Because Johnston, 51, has been involved in oncology work locally for nearly 30 years, she’s connected to doctors, nurses, medical advisers and even security personnel who help with patients. Health Guidance’s board of directors are part of this ongoing networking.
Asked to describe Health Guidance’s services, the effervescent Johnston said, “We get involved with families the minute they hear the word ‘cancer.’ Most of our referrals are cancer-related, but anything that’s a critical illness that’s forever life-changing we like to get involved as soon as possible so we can help build the best medical team. ... We look at every single part of a person’s life in the context of their illness.”
She emphasizes that the 1099 nonprofit is not a transportation or financial aid service. Each prospective client’s situation is dealt with depending on their needs and current available assistance.
All of this help costs money, which proves a challenge given the center’s $54,000 annual operating budget.
Funding is “strictly grass-roots donations. We’re working on the largest campaign we’ve ever done – $250,000 we hope to raise in a 12-month period. Everything we’ve gotten so far is totally individual donations.” Volunteers are also needed, whether it’s taking people to doctor’s appointments, answering phones or helping with the website.
She has a track record for meeting formidable challenges. Over the past couple decades, Johnston has raised more than $2 million in the Charlotte community to help families dealing with serious illnesses. She says her own breast cancer fight has been successful, with her last doctor’s appointment scheduled in mid-October.
“We’re just getting started,” she said. “Just wait.”