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Finding Solace in a New Community: Rhonda Sanderman's Story

November 30, 2018

For many Kettering Health Network employees, co-workers begin to feel like close friends. For Rhonda Sanderman, physical therapist assistant and certified lymphedema therapist, her co-workers quickly became a vital support system.

After a 10-year career in home care, Rhonda decided she wanted to work in a hospital environment in which she could interact with other people, which prompted her to apply for a position at Kettering Medical Center—the same position she now holds. At her pre-employment exam 25 years ago, Rhonda arrived for what she believed would be routine blood work, but would eventually lead to a diagnosis of chronic myeloid leukemia.

“That visit prompted [the physician] to say, ‘Your blood work is a bit abnormal. Have you been sick lately?’” Rhonda said. She followed up with her family doctor who repeated the blood work, which still did not appear normal.

“We found it so early, it took probably a good six months for us to actually get a diagnosis,” Rhonda said.

By this time, she had started her new job in Rehabilitation Medicine, so she was at work when she received the call about her diagnosis. The support she would receive from her co-workers started that very day when a fellow employee insisted on driving her home.

“I was devastated,” Rhonda said. “I had to start treatment, and it was just overwhelming.”

However, Rhonda received a card from a co-worker right away, and soon after received another signed by everyone in her department.

Rhonda was offered a bone marrow transplant for her treatment, but her brother was not a match. Knowing the survival rate after transplants from non-family donors was 50 percent, Rhonda opted for a different kind of treatment—an injectable immune booster. The treatment was effective but didn’t come without side effects including severe nausea, fatigue, and depression.

“There were a lot of times when I would lay down at lunchtime just to get a breather because the fatigue level was so high with my type of treatment,” Rhonda said. “I had to find a position in our department that didn’t require a whole lot of physical work.”

Rhonda’s co-workers assisted her in adjusting her position to eliminate the need to go up and down the stairs, so she was able to work in Outpatient Therapy, administering hot packs and massages to her patients. Despite the physical hardship her illness and its treatment placed on her, Rhonda continued to work full-time for much of her journey.

After six years of the same treatment, Rhonda found a clinical trial in Houston, Texas that allowed her to start a new drug without the side effects that would still manage her illness.

“My kids had grown up with me being this tired, laying around mom for six years, and now all of the sudden mom’s got energy, wants to do stuff, is a different mom,” Rhonda said.

Rhonda’s kids were young when she was first diagnosed, and she feared she wouldn’t be able to see them graduate high school. Now, she’s seen them graduate college, attended her daughter’s wedding, and has held her first grandchild.

Medically, Rhonda’s treatments brought her to where she is today—in remission, with treatment, as her doctor’s longest surviving leukemia patient. But emotionally, she wouldn’t be where she is today without the support of her co-workers.

“I met a guy when I was first diagnosed who didn’t want to tell any of his co-workers,” Rhonda said. “He didn’t want people feeling sad for him or knowing that something was wrong. From day one, my co-workers have known I’ve had this diagnosis. All the people here have been amazing, huge cheerleaders.”

Rhonda has not only shared her story with her co-workers but also sometimes finds it beneficial to share with her patients.

“Sometimes I’ll work on the Oncology Unit,” Rhonda said. “Every once in a while, I will share part of my story with a patient who is newly diagnosed, and they’re going to start chemo.”

Rhonda is also an active volunteer for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society where she attends a group called First Connection. The group matches her with people who are newly diagnosed and would benefit from knowing someone who has gone through the same thing. Rhonda was the first Woman of the Year in Dayton, in which Kettering Medical Center donated $5,000 to her fundraiser, for which she raised a total of $15,000. Recently, Rhonda participated in Light the Night with her family and co-workers to continue to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“I’ve had opportunities to do things that I never would’ve been able to do,” Rhonda said. “I would’ve never been able to get up and talk in front of people before. Now I can get up and tell my story.”

Rhonda plans to continue reaching out to people who may be in need of her support.

“If you have someone newly diagnosed, I’m more than happy to talk with them,” she said. “I love meeting other people with the same diagnosis and letting them know what’s out there.”