Those of us who have experienced cancer know firsthand the havoc it can cause in life. This is where I found myself in 2007, not too long after being diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkin lymphoma. For the next few years, my doctors’ appointments and treatments became my primary focus. It meant that my career had to be put on a back burner. I lost my sense of purpose because working was such an important part of who I was; it was my identity. No longer was I a human resources professional who helped employees stay engaged at work. I was now “Kristen the cancer patient” who was at the beckon and call of this unpredictable disease and its demands.  

Fortunately, I realized quickly that I had a choice. I could either wallow in self-pity and fall into a depression or I could try to recreate for myself a new normal. I chose option two. My new job was to take the best care of myself that I possibly could. I would exercise and go for walks when I felt well. I committed to eating super healthy. I meditated on a regular basis. And, another one of my healthy practices was taking yoga classes at a local studio. One day at yoga, I had the pleasure of bumping into my old workout buddy, Dr. Peter McGuire, the founder of Oasis Free Clinics. We hadn’t seen each other in several years, and we caught up on what had been happening since our last encounter. 

Peter had continued his work evolving Oasis. I shared my dealings with the cancer and being on leave from my job. Peter was pretty easy to open up to, and I let him know that I was feeling lost without a purpose beyond my treatments. He asked if I might be interested in offering a unique type of support at the clinic—staff development for the team. 

It is very common that nonprofits have little budget for employee and leader development, and these were the tools of my trade. I offered occasional development that focused on helping improve team dynamics, communicating effectively, and appreciating differences. My work and being an outsider helped and encouraged staff development. Being able to provide team development was a win-win. The staff got time invested in their skills, and I was able to re-establish some purpose in my life.

But eventually the cancer treatments would come on full force to the point where I only had the stamina to focus on my health. I had chemo every month, my blood counts would drop, and I was very weak. I was admitted to Brigham-Women’s Hospital on Labor Day 2013.  I endured more chemo treatments and eventually gained a new lease on life with a stem-cell transplant. When I returned home later that month, the brilliant fall colors gave me new hope that maybe the cancer was gone once and for all. 

Almost six years later, I had another serendipitous meeting at another health club with Peter. We were thrilled to see one another and agreed to meet for lunch. Once again, Peter asked if I might be interested in getting involved with Oasis – this time as a member of the board of directors.  I was invited to join a board in 2019. I immediately felt at ease with this group. I was completely behind the Oasis mission, and I was excited to be a part of a nonprofit that supported offering free health care to our community’s uninsured members. 

The board of directors had a retreat to plan for the organization’s future.  As we closed our session, the facilitator asked us each to take a moment to share a reflection on that day. I had no idea what I might say, but as I listened to these smart, dedicated professionals talk about what the day’s work meant for Oasis, I was humbled. I shared that I was struck that we were 20 community members fortunate to have healthcare coverage, and yet our common mission was to ensure that all members of our community have access, too. I got a bit choked up as I spoke because I could never have imagined what my own journey with a serious health condition would have been like without having health insurance.

Working with Oasis keeps me humble. Being a board member enables me to be a part of the community that gives back. There were many times in my cancer journey when I was on the receiving end of help through tough times. That’s exactly what Oasis does and what it stands for. All of us has fallen on hard times. Regardless of what those hard times look like, there are safety nets throughout our communities. I’m thankful to be a part of the Oasis safety net that strives to make sure people who need access to health care have it. 

Throughout my cancer treatments, I recall my doctor saying that I had very good health coverage. The discrepancy between ‘very good’ and not so good is huge in our society. If I play a small part in closing that gap by being involved in a nonprofit here in Brunswick, Maine, it’s my way of giving back and saying thank you to those who helped me through my health challenges. I realize that I may never be able to share my gratitude with every person who helped me. The best that I can do is to focus my energies on paying it forward.

On September 12, 2020, Oasis was supposed to celebrate its 25th anniversary of changing lives and strengthening our community with a gala. Even though it was canceled, I had plenty to celebrate. That date was also the seventh anniversary of receiving my healthy stem cells and being considered cancer free. This is why I have a very special connection with Oasis Free Clinics and how proud I am to be part of this organization. 

Oasis Free Clinics is a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic, providing exceptional, patient-centered care to uninsured members of our community. For more information, please call 721-9277 or visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org.

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