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Terminal patients get chance to live a dream

Susan Beyczi has a rare form of a uterine cancer that is aggressive and incurable. The Indian Land, S.C., woman was asked if there might be one last dream she could live out.

“I knew right away that I wanted to see Paul McCartney in concert,” says Beyczi, 56. “I have been in love with him since I first saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was a young girl.”

Beyczi (pronounced Bayzee) had already seen the former Beatle in concert three times, but always from the rafters.

Thanks to the California-based Dream Foundation, Beyczi was able to secure “really awesome seats.” Her daughter, Jennifer, 31, drove down from New Jersey to join her at the Oct. 30 Greensboro concert.

“I never thought we’d be able to do this together at this stage I’m in,” Beyczi says. “It was one of the best days of my life besides the birth of my children.”

Many people are familiar with wish-granting organizations for terminally ill children, but few are aware of Dream Foundation’s work on behalf of terminally ill adults. Founded in 1994, it has fulfilled more than 20,000 final dreams. Corporate sponsorships and private donations help pay for it all.

Shannon Crystal, Beyczi’s social worker at the Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center at Presbyterian Hospital, where Beyczi attends a support group, had the idea for her to reach out to the foundation. (She’s being treated at Levine Cancer Institute.)

Beyczi says she never outgrew her childhood crush on Paul McCartney, and it is one she passed on to Jennifer, who grew up listening to the songs with her.

“I am so glad this is something we got to share together,” Beyczi says. “It is something she’ll never forget. It made it so much more special bringing her with me.”

Requests on the rise

The Dream Foundation application includes a letter from the patient (or caregiver) as well as medical certification from the patient’s physician certifying that he or she has a life expectancy of one year or less (or longer if the disease is progressive, like ALS or dementia).

“Year after year, we have seen a rise in requests for dreams from adults facing a terminal illness,” says Kisa Heyer, Executive Director of Dream Foundation. “Their lives often revolve around treatments and doctors’ appointments, leaving them little time to dream. Our goal is to continue to be there for those in need.”

And “Dreams come in all shapes and sizes,” says Lori Thiel, 42, a full time “dream coordinator.” Requests range from a relaxing getaway to a final vacation with children to meeting a personal hero. They can also include something needed to improve the patient’s quality of life, such as a lift chair or mobility scooter.

Once the arrangements are made, coordinators pull from the organization’s network of volunteers to find someone in the area to help with details and maintain a sense of community and personal touch.

Making the college reunion

Wooten Schmitz, 48, remembers the day her husband, Adam Schmitz, had his first seizure in 2012. He was in his first year of teaching 7th grade Language Arts at McClintock Middle School when Adam took a break from grading papers to walk into the living room of their Cotswold home.

“He kept moving his head from side to side,” Schmitz says, “and making sounds that seemed to be a loop or a broken record. You could tell he was trying to talk but no words were coming out.”

At the hospital, doctors found a mass on his brain. “By the end of the night, we knew he had cancer,” Schmitz says. “They gave him 2 years, and he lasted 20 months.”

Schmitz’s memories of her husband’s final weeks are filled with images of him in Hospice and of being brave for their two children, Zeke, 12, and Josephine, 10. But she also has joyful recollections of that time thanks to the Dream Foundation.

About a month before he died, Adam Schmitz was approached by a nurse at the Levine Cancer Institute, where he was being treated, and asked if he would be interested in applying to the foundation. Adam knew exactly what he wanted.

His dream, he said, was to attend his college reunion. His four years at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., were among the happiest in his life and he wanted to take his wife to his 25th reunion and introduce her to the friends who were the first to, as she says, “really get him.”

The foundation provided airline tickets and hotel stay in Chicago. Adam’s college friends, many of whom hadn’t planned on attending the reunion until they heard Adam was coming, rallied around him. “They knew,” says Schmitz, “that it would be the last time they’d see him.”

Schmitz says that being among his old friends filled her husband with a sense of contentment and fulfillment. “It’s incredible how many memories and people we were able to squeeze into that trip,” she says.

‘Closure, peace and comfort’

Reunions are a popular request. Thiel remembers a Chicago woman who traveled to California to visit her sister and ended up in Hospice, too ill to return home. She worried about her cat, Bronte, who wouldn’t understand why she wasn’t coming back for him, so Dream Foundation arranged to fly Bronte to her in California.

“The bedside reunion gets to the heart of closure, peace and comfort,” says Thiel, who was there for that tearful reunion. “We can’t provide a cure, but this we can do.”

Some wishes are easier to fulfill than others.

Meghan Turley, 23, another Dream Coordinator, recently arranged the dream of a Charlotte woman with terminal colon cancer.

“She wanted a laptop,” says Turley, who was able to have one delivered to her this past July. “She wanted to get her GED before she died and show her daughter she could do it.”

The dreams are often as meaningful for the loved ones left behind as they are for the terminally ill who request them, according to foundation officials.

“Seeing the happiness Adam felt being back with his old friends just before he died,” says Schmitz, “provides me with happy and sustaining memories.”

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