At Altru Cancer Center, when patients finish their last round of chemotherapy or another form of treatment, something special takes place.
Loved ones and staff members join patients in the atrium, where they ring a ship’s bell—the Survivor Bell—three times.
“When patients ring the bell, they ring it for themselves and all who stood by them during everything they went through with their cancer treatment,” says Grant R. Seeger, MD, radiation oncologist at Altru. “It also gives other patients hope. The bell is in a central location in the cancer center, so everyone hears it, no matter where they are. The clang of the bell sends a message: ‘I’ve reached the end of my journey.’”
The sound also marks the beginning of a journey of survivorship. Ringing a bell to celebrate the end of cancer treatment is a longstanding practice at many cancer centers, but at Altru, it’s a new tradition. That’s because of Dave Kary and his mother, Dona.
Standing by Her Side
Seventy-seven-year-old retired hairstylist Dona Kary of Grand Forks, North Dakota, didn’t face neuroendocrine carcinoma, a rare form of cancer, alone—her husband, Vern, and 39-year-old son, Dave, supported her through six rounds of chemotherapy beginning last fall. Dave and his mother have always been close. He credits her for his sense of humor. An ability to look on the lighter side of things served Dona well when she began to lose her hair as a result of treatment.
“Mom looked at me one night and said, ‘Go get your clippers. You’re taking a trip to beauty school,’” Dave says. “We sat in the kitchen with a movie on and I cut her hair. She didn’t shed a tear. It was hard for me to have to do that for her, but she kept cracking jokes and laughing.”
Dave accompanied Dona to all of her medical appointments and most of her chemotherapy treatments. While watching TV one night, Dave saw a commercial featuring a child ringing a bell at the end of cancer treatment. When he learned Altru Cancer Center didn’t have a Survivor Bell, he resolved to change that.
A Gift from the Heart
Dave connected with Altru Cancer Center about donating a bell, and he was put in touch with Altru Health Foundation to make it happen.
“The heartfelt donation Dave has gifted will have an impact for many years to come,” says Brittany Caillier, director of philanthropy, Altru Health Foundation. “Not only is he honoring his mother, but he is giving hope to so many others. It is truly touching.”
Dave ordered a sturdy, handmade ship’s bell, which workers installed at the cancer center in late spring. The first person to ring it was Dona, who had recently finished chemotherapy. She isn’t sure what comes next for her—neuroendocrine carcinoma is difficult to treat, and more chemotherapy or immunotherapy is a possibility— but ringing the bell marked the end of a momentous time in her life and the beginning of another. It also demonstrated to other patients and their loved ones that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
“Ringing the bell was the end of a lot of long, hard hours spent to get to that point,” Dave says. “It was wonderful thing for Mom to show that she was on to the next step of wherever life takes her.”
Is there an Altru service or program that’s close to your heart? Learn how to show your support at altru.org/foundation.