This story is also published in the September 10, 2020 edition of the Magee Courier. You can find it here.
Story by Lee Catherine Collins
Photos by Lee Catherine Collins, Pam Werner, and Ashley Steele
Ashley Steele is a mom to two boys - Hunter and Brodie. She is a wife to Shane. She is a sister and friend. She has worked for the City of Magee for 15 years as Airport Manager. She goes to church, runs errands, and works as an LPN at Magee General Hospital. She is 36 years old. Ashley found out she had cancer rather suddenly, after a day of her chest pounding. She chalked it up to wearing her face mask all day or maybe stress. She got 4 units of blood at Magee General and took a COVID test. After a bone marrow biopsy, Ashley got the news nobody wants to hear - she had a form of leukemia, ALL, to be exact. She packed a bag, called her husband, and headed to be admitted to an acute care facility in Jackson to immediately start chemotherapy. About two weeks into her chemotherapy, Ashley woke up one night feeling dizzy. Hospital staff couldn’t get a pulse, and she ended up in the ICU for a week while they tried to stabilize her blood pressure. Doctors were contacting her husband because they were afraid they were losing her. Ashley suffered septic shock due to liver failure, which is a rare, but very real possible side effect of her chemotherapy. After this scare, Ashley slept for about 2 weeks. Her liver numbers were so high, and her doctors were uncertain about her recovery. Unfortunately, along with all the sleeping and resting came an extreme weight loss and muscle atrophy. Ashley quickly dropped 60 pounds and essentially became bedridden. Her body’s strength healed her liver, but she was not left with much strength for recovery elsewhere. When Ashley was more stable, her doctors wanted her to look at long-term rehab. She had to kindly deny her doctor’s recommendation. As a resident of Magee and a nurse at Magee General Hospital, Ashley had a clear opinion on where she wanted to spend her swingbed recovery days - she chose Magee General. She told everyone, “You don’t know Ms. June. She will work my tail off! I need to go home and see Ms. June.” A welcome home parade of community members, family, and friends greeted her upon arrival. With that welcome came lots of love and support, which Ashley would need to face the days ahead - she was home, but she had work to do. When Ashley was transferred to Magee for swing bed services, she could not hold a fork. She could not remove the cap from a marker. She could not lift her leg off of the bed. All of those weeks of resting had essentially saved her, but it was not for free. Ashley’s muscles were shot - her knees and hips were so weak that standing, rolling over in bed, even sitting up were a challenge. “She was totally max-assist for everything. It zapped her,” said June Thames, PTA. June Thames, PTA, and Chris Hannick, OT, consistently delivered Ashley’s swing bed therapy, working progressively on everything from sitting up and standing to gripping a toothbrush. One day, Ashley was practicing standing with Chris and June. “I stood up to the side of the bed, and my feet just went to moving. Chris asked me, ‘Can you make it to the bed?’ and I said, ‘Let’s go!’” said Steele. At that time, it had been two months since Ashley had walked. Ashley started taking trips with Chris and June to the recliner and back, making videos of her progress and sending them to her family, who were ecstatic to see the updates. Due to COVID-19, her progress videos were encouraging proof of her recovery since visitors were mostly restricted. Ashley spent 87 days in the hospital. She spent Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and her wedding anniversary in the hospital. Thankfully, she celebrated her 37th birthday at home on July 6th. Sometimes standing is still hard. Since leaving the swing bed program at Magee, Ashley is still undergoing chemotherapy treatments to fight her leukemia. She is still attending outpatient therapy at Magee General twice a week to keep working, keep improving, and keep building her strength. Instead of helping her out of bed, today June and Chris work with Ashley on improving the foundation of strength they have helped her create. June spends hours watching her walk, noting how her steps tend to stretch to the side instead of forward. June reminds her how to step, leads her in exercises that seem simple but mean the difference between strong and atrophied muscles. While Ashley thinks about every step she takes, June does, too. “You don't realize the muscles you use and the strength you use just to stand. I literally have to think about every step I take,” said Steele. Chris Hannick, OT, has her gripping, squeezing, and pressing. He inspects the way she holds, grips, and moves. He measures her degree of motion. He quite literally coaches her through every exercise. He seems to be able to see her muscles through the skin - he knows what to look for when it comes to atrophied muscles and what milestones Ashley should be reaching. He motivates her to give every little exercise all of the strength that she has. “She is such a hard worker,” says Hannick. Ashley is tough. It is no coincidence that her name is Steele. Her nerves, her optimism, her attitude, body, and faith are absolutely solid. She is very capable and independent. She is not the type of person to back down to a challenge. She serves her patients, and it is not in her nature to be looked after and helped. She sees this season of having the roles reversed as a life experience that is going to help her to be a better nurse in her future. “The hardest part of coming home was letting my coworkers work on me. They aren’t supposed to have to care for me. But I have to say I couldn’t have had better quality care.” In the midst of her cancer diagnosis, life-threatening complications, and a global pandemic, Ashley has made an astounding recovery. She relied on her rock-solid faith and the staff and therapy team at Magee General Hospital, and together they fought to get her back on the right track. It is a special thing to see coworkers and community members ban together to support one of their own. “For my mental and physical health I couldn’t have asked for anything better than to come home.” Ashley wants to encourage her friends, family, and community to choose Magee General’s doctors, nurses, and therapists for their healthcare needs.