The Heart of It (Part Two) by Amelia Blades Steward

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Sometimes it takes a while to process things. Such was the case after witnessing the meeting of Casey Artzer and his heart donor family, Elizabeth, Rodney, English and Chloe Tong in June of this year. The Artzers arrived on a beautiful Eastern Shore day full of sunshine and hope. I had arrived early to record their meeting, trying to stay in the background of this poignant and touching reunion. This vantage point allowed me another perspective, that of the Tong’s Corgi, Maggie, and it is from Maggie’s point of view that I can share part of this story.

Pictured back row, left to right, are Chloe, Rodney and English Tong. Pictured middle row, left to right, are Kathy and Casey Artzer and Elizabeth Tong. Pictured in front row is Lisa Colaianni, Donor Family Advocate with The Washington Regional Transplant Community.

I had met Maggie in puppy class with my Corgi, Schooder. Like most Corgis, Maggie liked to be center stage, greeting people enthusiastically when arriving, jumping with delight and eager to be petted. I guess my focus was still on her a bit when the Casey and his mother Kathy arrived at the Tongs house in June. I wondered how her welcome would interfere with the embraces that the families would share.

As Casey came down the Tong’s sidewalk, seeing Rodney for the first time, the two embraced and held onto each other. My eyes drifted down to Maggie and I realized that she was not jumping up to be greeted, but instead, she was sitting mindfully at Rodney’s feet, looking up at Casey as if to say, “I know you are special and a part of my family too.” We walked inside where Elizabeth Tong was waiting in the foyer of their home. Again, I was struck by Maggie’s attention and behavior, sitting dutifully at Elizabeth’s feet and looking up at Casey in wonder.

Twenty-four years ago, Rodney and Elizabeth Tong, and their daughters English and Chloe, of Royal Oak lost their son and brother, Hunter Tong, age two and one half, to an unexpected death. Hunter’s parents chose to donate Hunter’s organs and his heart went to a one-year old child, Casey Artzer in Topeka, KS. This June, Casey came to meet the Tong family. He had already met English Tong seven years ago, but decided to reach out to the whole family after reading English’s blog post about the visit.

Lisa Colaianni, Donor Family Advocate with The Washington Regional Transplant Community, who met the Tongs after the donation and who has become a family friend, comments, “Today, we have a 25-year old who is alive because of Hunter’s donation. It’s unusual to have a meeting like this happen so many years after the donation. I have facilitated meetings as soon as three months after the death of a donor. The meetings usually take place after a year and usually before five.”

Rodney Tong recalls the week, “We gave Casey a real Eastern Shore experience, taking him sailing for the first time at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum and he loved it. He also rowed with Chloe’s rowing club, the Eastern Shore Community Rowers.”

The Artzers stayed next door at the house belonging to a friend of the Tongs. The house, located on the water, had a pool and provided the perfect respite for their week-long visit. The Tongs hosted a build-your-own Taco Night and also made crabs and rockfish plentiful during the Artzers’ stay.Rodney adds, “Casey reveled in the Eastern Shore fare.”

Elizabeth Tong recalls the fun the two families had making dinner the first night. She states, “We are very grateful the family was willing to come across the country to meet us. It was light and easy and we all got along well. The week was about doing fun things with this new family we were getting to know. It was easy and comfortable.”

Pictured is Casey Artzer playing ukulele at the Tong’s musical jam session.

Casey, a history buff, enjoyed a trip with his mother to Washington, DC to take in the monuments and the White House. The Tongs organized a picnic and jam session with local musicians, so Casey could play music. Elizabeth adds, “I think the jam session was his favorite event of the week! He is a talented musician.”

Casey Artzer reflects on his visit with the Tongs, stating ” Oh wow! I can’t wait to go back! I had such a great time hanging out with Rodney, Elizabeth, English and Chloe. Their food was amazing, I loved sailing and getting the chance to row with the Chloe’s row team. I was sore for a while after going with English to Cross Fit! And I can’t thank them enough for the jam session. I feel a deep connection to them all, especially Rodney.”

The Tongs noticed how much Casey and Rodney had in common. Rodney notes, “Casey and I had a lot of similarities. I made a real connection with him. He has a wonderful general knowledge and is a very curious person like I am. He ran errands with me and helped me finish a crossword puzzle. He loves to travel like me and for the rest of his life wants to do as many things as he can.”

English Tong, who originally made the connection with the Artzer family and who was only four years old when Hunter died, states, “It made my brother’s life more real. When it’s been so long, it’s easy to feel far removed from him, but having his heart near me again gave me back his existence.”

“The whole thing was unreal, but amazing,” adds Chloe Tong. “I felt a weird instinct of comfort with Casey. It was so amazing to see how he was enjoying life to the fullest. I felt connected almost right away in a way I never have before.”

Elizabeth Tong, Kathy Artzer, and Rodney Tong.

For Casey’s mother, Kathy Artzer, who says she and the Tongs have always been connected by Hunter’s heart, notes that the two families are now connected by true friendship. She adds, “It’s hard to put in words what this trip meant to me and Casey. I have always kept them in a special place in my heart, but spending time with the whole family was surreal and extraordinary. Rodney, Elizabeth and the girls are all lovely, kind, hilarious and unique, in their own right!”

She reflects, “Giving my family the gift of life 24 years ago was so selfless, during the worst tragedy. It was also wonderful to get the sense of love in the Eastern Shore community, in which the Tongs are a huge part of.”

Elizabeth Tong was a founding member of the Donor Family and Community Advisory Council for the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC). She continues to be a volunteer WRTC Donate Life Ambassador, speaking at Continuing Education Courses at Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC, sharing with the professionals who work with transplant families that it’s ok to be emotional. She comments, “It’s important for these professionals to hear from a donor mom just how meaningful it is to be able to donate a loved one’s organs. It becomes a gift not only for the recipient, but also for the donor.”

Elizabeth adds, “Meeting Casey and his mother was a very meaningful experience – sort of like collateral beauty. We are no longer strangers. To actually meet Casey was a gift. Now our families are joined. There is a piece of Hunter that is still living and it’s doing good.”
Rodney concludes, “Casey is keeping Hunter alive and Hunter is keeping Casey alive.”

The heart is a beautiful thing.

For information about making the decision to be an organ donor, visit Washington Regional Transplant Community’s website at www.beadonor.org. To see a video about the Tong’s story and their reunion with Casey, visit here.

Inside the Sandwich: Muscular Dystrophy Carnivals and Annual Giving By Amelia Blades Steward

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During the 1960s and 70s, it wouldn’t be summer if we didn’t hold a Muscular Dystrophy Carnival in my neighborhood near the high school in Easton. A group of about 10 kids from my neighborhood looked forward to these backyard carnivals, to benefit “Jerry’s kids.” The Muscular Dystrophy Carnival kits came in the mail and included tickets, posters and an idea pamphlet to help us raise the funds to help find a cure for the disease. It was an important and noble cause. We had watched for hours the Jerry Lewis Telethons on the television and wanted to do our part to help the kids we saw in the images on the screen. We didn’t have many children in wheelchairs in our school, so it seemed particularly important to reach out to those who were unfortunate enough to be in that situation.

We used each other’s backyards to host the carnivals and rotated from house to house each year, based on the parents who agreed to having their card tables placed in the grass outside and their clotheslines strung with sheets, providing backdrops to the games we played. The O’Briant family’s yard was the most popular one in which to hold the carnivals. We each had aluminum wash tubs to contribute for bobbing for apples or for the floating duck game, where you picked a duck and got a prize based on the number on the bottom of the duck. There were magic shows, fortune-telling booths, and Kool-Aid stands. Everything required a ticket and the tickets cost about five cents each.

We assembled our props and got the carnival set up, borrowing from each other’s households. An alley connected our backyards, so it was easy to get things from one place to another. There was Kool-Aid to be stirred, cookies to be baked, and we had to get out the word so people would come to our carnival. The nearby

Elks Club pool provided the perfect place to share our news. Word spread among the kids when the carnival would take place. Of course, we counted on our mothers coming – they helped fill out our numbers and usually donated extra money.

The carnival started around 11 a.m. and went until 1 p.m., when the pool opened. We didn’t like to miss our pool time. We took our carnival jobs seriously, whether running a game, performing, or selling drinks or food. We knew the more we smiled and encouraged our patrons, the more money we would make. As the day wore on, however, so did we. The sun shone high overhead and the humidity rose. Some of the excitement waned and my friends and I grew weary.

Once we had drunk the Kool-Aid and eaten the cookies, we were ready to pack up the games, return the tables, chairs and props and head to the pool. Before we did, however, it was exciting to see how much money we had raised. If we made over ten dollars, we were excited! We weren’t old enough to have checkbooks, so one of our parents would deposit the money and write a check to be mailed to the Muscular Dystrophy Association. We waited anxiously for the return “thank you” letter in the mail from Jerry. It confirmed our hard work had paid off and showed we did something meaningful with our summer. These backyard carnivals instilled in us a compassion for helping others, something that still rings true today as the annual appeal letters arrive in the mail. While I no longer get that personal letter from Jerry, I still find satisfaction in anticipating the “thank you” after my annual donations are made – a confirmation that we can still make a difference, no matter how small the gift.

 

Inside the Sandwich: Easter Baskets to Camp Tee Shirts By Amelia Blades Steward

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I never have transitioned from one season to the next on time. My friends laugh about the year the Christmas tree stayed up until Valentine’s Day (it was real, not artificial) and they had to practically do an intervention to get me to take it down. This year, I didn’t even get my Easter decorations out. The snowman on the sideboard got taken down in early April and replaced by two Beatrix Potter figurines and a small basket of Easter eggs that I got for my birthday in March.

It is how I have approached the “things” in my life too. Not always being ready to part with the memories attached to the items I have collected over the years. This week, however, that sentimental streak paid off when I found an old camp tee shirt and jacket that I wore at age 14 while attending Wye Institute, a camp held at Aspen institute in Queenstown, MD in the 1970s and 80s. I looked for the camp clothing because Aspen is doing a documentary on Arthur Houghton and Wye Institute and had called me about being interviewed as a camper. Houghton, the president of Steuben Glass in New York, had founded the Wye Institute camp for gifted and talented adolescents from rural areas to expand their intellectual and creative minds. I viewed it as perfect timing, as did Aspen, when I brought the tee shirt and jacket to the documentary taping.

The green and white striped camp-issued cotton tee shirt brought me back to a time and place in my life when the ground shifted and something changed in me, something that changed my view of the world. It was the summer of 1974 when I attended the month-long camp at Wye Institute with other 8th graders from Maryland’s Eastern Shore and New York’s Finger Lakes region. We would be attending high school in the fall. We all wore the same camp uniforms. The only time we didn’t wear our camp clothes were when we went to bed each night and could wear our own pajamas. My bunk-mates and I talked late into the night about world peace, women’s lib and what we were going to do with our lives.

As campers we studied and discussed classic literature, film and theater, learning about how these things have shaped our country’s foundation. We explored art, music, creative writing, and the environment – learning how to sail on the Wye River and attending our first theater production of the play “Godspell” in Washington, DC. We even participated in social experiments. One experiment had half the group paint their faces in wild colors and shop in nearby Centreville, while the other half of the group without the painted faces shopped in the same shops. I was in the group with the painted faces and we were run out of the shops we went in.

At Wye Institute I realized that I wanted to be a writer. For the first time, I participated in a creative writing class and learned the power of the pen. The camp showed me that I could illicit a reaction from the words that I wrote. My peers responded to the words and that was powerful. It was a summer when we all learned we had opinions and that our voices could be heard.

We had debates and studied rhetoric. We even put on the musical, “The Fantasticks,” for our parents when they came to visit us mid-month. It was the first time many of us had been away from home and from our parents for this length of time. After leaving camp that summer, I remember how different I felt when I got home. I had been transformed somehow and knew that I would approach high school in a new anticipatory way.

Now, as I think about summer approaching, I wonder if my own college-aged son will one day remember working as a camp counselor, experiencing wet sleeping bags from summer thunderstorms, chiggers and poison ivy, lost bathing suits, glorious camp productions, and the tears of campers saying good-bye to new friends. While memories like these linger for all of us, we are forced to move ahead to the next chapter of our lives. Ready or not, the season is changing. I just need to find where I put that box of Easter decorations before Memorial Day arrives.

 

Gilbert Byron Day to Celebrate the Chesapeake Bay

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Local author and poet Gilbert and his wife Edna Byron are pictured here with the original one room cabin at Old House Cove near St. Michaels in August 1942. This year, the annual birthday celebration in Gilbert Byron’s honor will be held on July 9 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton where the cabin is now located. Friends will gather to do readings and share stories about Byron, who lived from 1903 to 1991.

Local author and poet Gilbert and his wife Edna Byron are pictured here with the original one room cabin at Old House Cove near St. Michaels in August 1942. This year, the annual birthday celebration in Gilbert Byron’s honor will be held on July 9 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton where the cabin is now located. Friends will gather to do readings and share stories about Byron, who lived from 1903 to 1991.

According to Jacques “Jack” T. Baker, Jr., who wrote the book, “Gilbert Byron: A Life Worth Examining,” local author and poet Gilbert Byron had much in common with the writer Henry Thoreau. Known as “The Chesapeake Thoreau,” not only did Byron live in a house on a wooded cove, delighting in the simple life, but he also shared a birthday with the acclaimed writer – the two were born on July 12. This year, the annual birthday celebration in Gilbert Byron’s honor will be held on July 9 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Pickering Creek Audubon Center in Easton. Friends will gather to do readings and share stories about Byron, who lived from 1903 to 1991.

In addition to tours of the Gilbert Byron House, Jack Baker of the Gilbert Byron Society will provide a brief talk on the significance of Gilbert’s life, particularly in how he has preserved the culture of the Eastern Shore’s native waterman culture in his writing. Jack Baker comments, “Gilbert always said that if he didn’t think it was worthwhile, he wouldn’t have done it. That includes taking Thoreau’s philosophy to heart and living a simple minimalist life.”

There will be a formal poetry reading with guest readers including: Jim Dawson of Unicorn Bookshop; Nancy Andrew of Habitat for Humanity; Dave Harper, Associate Professor of English, at Chesapeake College; and Kelley Malone, retired Easton Town Council member, poet and friend of Gilbert Byron. There will be a showing of a DVD about Byron’s life and a period for questions and answers. Refreshments will be served.

This coming fall, the Gilbert Byron Society will also sponsor the First Annual Gilbert Byron Poetry Contest for middle school students from Talbot County. The contest’s purpose is to keep alive Gilbert’s passion for teaching poetry to children as a visiting poet in many Maryland public schools. Further information will be forthcoming.

For further information about the event, visit gilbertbyron.org or email Jack Baker at airmail4@gilbertbyron.org.

The Gilbert Byron Society is a nonprofit organization working through the Mid-Shore Community Foundation. Individuals interested in making a donation to the Society or contributing to the cash prizes for the upcoming Poetry Contest can visit mscf.org or call 410-820-8175. Donations may also be sent to The Gilbert Byron Society, c/o The Mid-Shore Community Foundation, 102 East Dover Street, Easton, MD 21601.

Recovery: A Mother Redefines Her Daughter’s Memory

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It starts like any other love story.  For Valerie and Rick Albee of Easton, their daughter, Mariah Albee, was the apple of their eye. Their only child, they raised Mariah with love and support.  Born in Anchorage, Alaska, the family relocated to Severna Park, Maryland when Mariah was three. They enrolled her in Montessori School where she was a high achiever. Her mother, Valerie recalls, “She was very artistic, self-confident, and although shy, she had many friends. It was a happy childhood.”

Pictured left to right are Mariah Albee, Valerie Albee, and Rick Albee. Valerie has established Mariah’s Mission Fund at the Mid-Shore Community Foundation to honor her daughter, Mariah, who lost her life to heroin. The mission of the Fund is to provide resources for worthy organizations that support families who have lost loved ones to drugs and/or alcohol.

Pictured left to right are Mariah Albee, Valerie Albee, and Rick Albee. Valerie has established Mariah’s Mission Fund at the Mid-Shore Community Foundation to honor her daughter, Mariah, who lost her life to heroin. The mission of the Fund is to provide resources for worthy organizations that support families who have lost loved ones to drugs and/or alcohol.

As her interests grew, Mariah competed on the swim team and participated in cheerleading. She took private flute and ballet lessons and by the age of 10, she was the youngest member of the Anne Arundel Community College Concert Band and in the All County Middle/Jr. Band. She also performed with the Ballet Theatre of Annapolis in several Nutcracker productions.

In the middle school years, however, Mariah began to experience bullying by her peers. She went on to attend Severna Park High School and by age 14, she began suffering from anxiety and depression. Her mother recalls the trips to the therapists, who at different times diagnosed Mariah’s behavior as either acting out or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

During high school, Mariah began self-medicating with alcohol and prescription drugs to deal with her anxiety and depression. Even though she was experiencing these conflicting emotions, she still managed to be a cheerleader, football manager, and a member of the Maryland Youth Symphony Flute Choir. She also found time to help the poor and the homeless. Eventually, the debilitating effects of her emotions required her to be homeschooled to complete her senior year. In 2000, she was ultimately diagnosed at Johns Hopkins Hospital with having bipolar disorder.

Although Mariah was capable of acquiring several jobs, she was unable to sustain them due to her emotional conflicts. During this time, Mariah was slipping away.  By 2003 she attended drug rehabilitation for the first time. By this point she was using heroin, prescription drugs and alcohol. The addiction continued through the next five years, with repeated rehabilitation stays. In 2008, she was able to “get clean” and was married in 2009, only to have the marriage dissolve in 2010. During that time, Mariah was happy and worked as a manager for approximately two years. Her employer commented how she was loved by everyone for her organizational skills, her great attitude, her giving personality, and most of all, for her enthusiasm.

By 2012, Mariah had moved home and was again trying to get her life together – attending Anne Arundel Community College to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. The family took a two-week vacation to visit Valerie’s sister Eileen and her family in Michigan. Everything seemed perfect. Then one week after returning home, the unthinkable happened. On September 7, 2012, Mariah died of a heroin overdose at her parents’ home at the age of 29.

For Valerie and Rick Albee, the effects were devastating. Their only child was gone. Valerie turned to grief counseling to try and deal with her loss and eventually found solace in a bereavement group of parents in Pasadena. The members were like her, having lost children to substance abuse. She recalls, “I wouldn’t be alive today without their counseling help.”

It has been two years since her daughter’s death and Valerie has been searching for meaning in it all.  She comments, “I don’t want drugs to define who Mariah was.  These kids don’t want to be drug addicts.”

In November 2013, the Albees moved to the Eastern Shore for a new start. While living in Easton Village in Easton, Valerie met a group of women who have embraced her and want to get involved in making a difference with the issue of substance abuse on the Eastern Shore.

The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene reported in July 2014 that the number of heroin-related emergency department visits for Marylanders has more than tripled, with 1200 visits in 2013 – up from 871 visits in 2012. Two age groups showed large increases in heroin deaths between 2012 and 2013, one of which was individuals ages 25 to 34 years of age, just like Mariah. The State reported that there has been an 88 percent increase in heroin-related deaths in Maryland since 2011.

Encouraged by her group of friends, Valerie approached the Mid-Shore Community Foundation and established Mariah’s Mission Fund. The purpose of the Fund reads: “Mariah’s Mission Fund has been established to honor our beloved daughter, Mariah, who lost her life to heroin. The mission is to provide resources for worthy organizations that support families who have lost loved ones to drugs and/or alcohol. We will use our struggles and experiences to empower the community through awareness and education.”

Valerie adds, “I recently decided to tell my story to gain support for services to help families struggling with the issue of addiction on the Shore. By establishing the fund at Mid-Shore Community Foundation, I hope to support the development of these services and make them available to the community here.”

Buck Duncan, president, Mid-Shore Community Foundation, states, “We are thrilled that the Albees have decided to start a fund of this kind. It will provide resources to help families in our region who are trying to cope with the stresses of substance abuse and increase awareness of this important community issue.”

Valerie’s friends are helping her fundraise for Mariah’s Mission Fund, meeting monthly to plan fundraising activities. Currently, the group is planning to hold a silent auction in the spring of 2015. Valerie is also working with the bereavement staff at Talbot Hospice Foundation in hopes of creating a support group by next spring on the Eastern Shore to help parents who have lost children to substance abuse.  In the meantime, she is encouraging any parents in need of these supportive services to attend a bereavement group for parents at the Chesapeake Life Center in Pasadena, MD. The group meets on Mondays once a month from 6 to 7:30. For further information on meeting times, call 410-987-2129, ext. 1271.

Sharon Huseman, Executive Director of Talbot Partnership, comments, “I am reminded of how courageous it is for parents to share their experiences like Valerie has after dealing with the pain of losing their child to addiction.  Addiction is like the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. Parents often feel a stigma in having a child who is suffering from substance abuse problems.”

Donations to Mariah’s Mission Fund are tax-deductible and can be made by contacting the Mid-Shore Community Foundation at 410.820.8175  or by visitingwww.mscf.org. For further information about helping with the spring silent auction for the Fund, contact Valerie Albee at mariahsmission2014@gmail.com. For parent resources in dealing with teen substance abuse, visit the Talbot County Parent Coalition at parentscoalitionoftalbotpartnership.org.

 

Poem

by Mariah Albee

(Written to her parents while she was in rehab in 2007)

 

When I was little my dreams were so bright.

I never imagined my life wouldn’t be alright.

Like any little girl, I played and went to school.

Taught to always live by the rules.

My mind was filled with dreams and hope.

Unaware of the nightmare of dope.

Somehow, somewhere, my dreams went up in smoke.

With real life I could no longer cope.

With drugs and danger I began to flirt.

After all, who could I hurt?

Whenever there was pain or anger to feel.

It was stopped and stifled with little pills.

Oh, but I made some progress didn’t I?

I found stronger drugs to get me high.

My dreams turned to hallucination.

My world was empty of imagination.

If my visions were to become real

There was always another pill.

Slowly, all my hopes and dreams were destroyed by addict schemes.

My morals and values were tossed aside

As I deserted my hopes and dreams

My childhood lullabies were replaced by bent spoons

I woke to the nightmare of looking through bars

I knew I could no longer reach for the stars

I finally had to face a scary reality

No one could change this situation but me.

I have learned it’s ok to think and feel.

To go through life without the needle

Now I can reach for the stars.

ONE DAY AT A TIME!

(Postscript: Maybe you can understand me a little better now. I love you mom, dad and grandpa! – Mariah)