Category Archives: health care

Horse senses — Unique summer program uses riding as tool for kids’ therapy

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Lachlan McManus captures a ring during an exercise in his hippotherapy session with Nature’s Way Rehabilitation Service on July 30 in Kenai.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Lachlan McManus captures a ring during an exercise in his hippotherapy session with Nature’s Way Rehabilitation Service on July 30 in Kenai.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

Lachlan McManus was having a blast. What 10-year-old on a horse wouldn’t be? Especially when there’s a sword involved, as there was during the Kenai boy’s riding session July 30 in an arena off Kalifornsky Beach Road near Kenai, with Lachlan plunging the sword forward in a fencing-style thrust, or extending it straight overhead as though he’d just freed Excalibur from its rock.

In his head, he could be a swashbuckling pirate or a knight of the Round Table galloping off to battle, wielding his nimble blade in one hand and guiding his powerful steed with the other.

The reality, of course, was less dramatic. The sword was a blunt-edged toy, lacking the heft to make a swashing sound, much less damage anything with which it might accidentally make contact. The only buckles involved were those on the riding gear and the safety belt fashioned around Lachlan’s waist. As for the horse, full speed ahead was more of a mosey than a trot, and direction came from the helpers walking along each side, rather than the rider having the reins.

But the lack of daring and danger didn’t bother Lachlan, nor did the fact that he wasn’t really getting a riding lesson. As far as he was concerned, he had an activity to enjoy on a summer afternoon, he was playing games and getting undivided attention, and he was on a horse — ergo, he was enjoying himself, period.

To those around him, though, Lachlan’s enjoyment was just the starting point of the afternoon’s purpose. Because he was enjoying himself he was easily engaged with his helpers, willing to listen to instructions, carry out the tasks being presented as games and try to achieve each incremental increase in challenge.

To the helpers — certified therapists and volunteer assistants with Nature’s Way Rehabilitation Services, the session was therapy. To Lachlan, it was just plain fun. To both parties, the day’s success was made possible in large part because of the horse.

That’s the world of hippotherapy — a physical, occupational or speech/language treatment strategy that incorporates horses. It’s a program that’s been available to kids with disabilities on the central Kenai Peninsula for six summers now, through Nature’s Way. It’s one of only a few programs of its kind available in Alaska, and the only available on the peninsula, or anywhere outside of the Anchorage area.

Part of the appeal of using horses in therapy is kids enjoy the sessions and are motivated to pay attention and follow instructions. Add games and fun props, such as this sword, and they’re even more engaged.

Part of the appeal of using horses in therapy is kids enjoy the sessions and are motivated to pay attention and follow instructions. Add games and fun props, such as this sword, and they’re even more engaged.

“I just think it’s incredible that there’s an actual hippotherapy opportunity for kids around here, because it is so specialized. Living on the peninsula, you wouldn’t think that something like that would be available, and they’re making it available, and I think it’s phenomenal for kids that could definitely benefit from it,” said Jami Wight, of Soldotna, who has had two of her kids in the summer hippotherapy program.

The term comes from the Greek “hippos,” meaning horse, as opposed to the Latin “equus,” for horse. It’s under the larger umbrella of equine therapy, though it’s not therapeutic riding, where specific riding skills are taught, or horse therapy, where interaction with horses is used to support therapeutic outcomes.

Hippotherapy specifically utilizes the movement of horses to create adaptive responses in patients and facilitate physical, occupational and speech/language treatment goals.

Therapy for kids needs to be fun and engaging to be effective, which is why various approaches incorporate games, toys and activities. In that sense the horse is a tool, just like a ball or tricycle, only way more fun — thus, way more engaging.

“It’s an amazing tool. It’s kind of like putting a kid in a swing or on a ball or trampoline or something like that, but it’s a horse, and what kid doesn’t like horses? We haven’t really met one yet,” said Noelle Miller, a speech therapist with Nature’s Way. “The beauty of horse therapy is it’s such a holistic environment and such an exciting environment that a lot of times you just get more verbal output from kids and more interactive output from kids because it’s real. You’re doing something with people, with animals. You’re not trying to stage a situation that demands interactions and reactions, it just happens naturally.”

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Health center is well of care, renewal — Wellness facility represents sea change for Kenaitze Tribe

Photos by Patrice Kohl, for the Redoubt Reporter. A “Łuq’a Nagh Ghilghuzht” sculpture by Joel Isaak depicts traditional Dena’ina life at fish camp outside the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s new Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai.

Photos by Patrice Kohl, for the Redoubt Reporter. A “Łuq’a Nagh Ghilghuzht” sculpture by Joel Isaak depicts traditional Dena’ina life at fish camp outside the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s new Dena’ina Wellness Center in Old Town Kenai.

Clarification: It was incorrectly reported that the Dena’ina Wellness Center is currently seeing all veterans and is considering expanding medical services to the public. Currently, only Alaska Native and American Indian veterans receive VA services through the Dena’ina Wellness Center. As a community mental health center, behavioral health services are open to the public. Other services are available to Indian Health Service beneficiaries.

Through the joint venture award, Indian Health Service funding supports operation and maintenance for a minimum of 20 years. The state of Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Division of Community and Regional Affairs provided $20 million to the project.

 

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

For the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, a new building in Old Town Kenai is an indication that the tide has turned.

A gradual erosion of culture, connection and community has reversed, and what was washed away, grain by grain, as if by the lapping pull of receding waves, is rushing back in, not only replacing what’s been lost, but reaching a new high-water mark.

That mark is a substantial one, both in its 52,000-square-foot physical form — the Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai — and in what it represents for the tribe.

“The Dena’ina word for it is ‘naqantughedul.’ For the tribe it means the tide is going out and it’s turning and going back in,” said Jaylene Peterson-Nyren, executive director. “It means the culture, the people, the land and just the lifestyle has been going away for many, many years, and it has taken a turn with this facility. It’s coming back.”

The building isn’t just a health clinic, nor was the motivation to construct it simply some tipping of an equation of funding and client base and service needs. It grew from a need to come together — to reconnect, strengthen and grow — and to improve health beyond just the physical.

The lobby of the new, 52,000-square-foot Dena’Ina Wellness Center is meant to be an area for gathering and socializing, more than just a medical clinic reception lobby.

The lobby of the new, 52,000-square-foot Dena’Ina Wellness Center is meant to be an area for gathering and socializing, more than just a medical clinic reception lobby.

“We wanted to design not just a health clinic, but we wanted to look at wellness from a holistic perspective, and that means not just that you’d have your checkups and you check out well. It means social and economic wellness, it means educational wellness — knowledge. It encompasses relationships across the board with customers who come in to seek services and for staff who are all working together on behalf of our customers,” Peterson-Nyren said.

Fittingly, then, the facility consolidates the tribe’s three health services programs under one roof — medical, dental and behavioral — as well as expands new services to address the wellness of a person as a whole, not just whether they’re running a fever.

“We try to focus on prevention and intervention. We want to encourage people to return. That’s one of the reasons we built the Gathering Space (building entrance room) is we want people to want to be here,” she said.

Along with being a center for holistic wellness, the brand-new facility, with construction starting in August 2012 and the grand opening ceremony June 12, is also a hub of social connection — an area of wellness which the tribe believes also needs care.

It’s designed to facilitate both — new equipment and the latest technology to aid the delivery of quality medical services, and a welcoming, calming, comfortable design to encourage people to come and enjoy the facility. The entry leads into the Gathering Space, with a large, open, airy design and windows stretching floor to the second-story ceiling above. A stage area anchors the wall facing the doors, while a reception desk, curved as if beckoning a visitor further into the building, stands to the right of the stage. To the left of the entrance is a wide staircase giving the feel of floating upward as it parallels the windows looking out over Old Town toward the mouth of the Kenai River and Cook Inlet. Upstairs are balcony railings to allow a bird’s-eye view of the stage and circular Oculus feature below, which will have a commissioned art piece suspended above it.

The whole space can be configured for large gatherings, such as the grand opening of the facility, which was packed to standing room only. Over 1,000 people came through the facility during the two days of tours, presentations and festivities, Peterson-Nyren said.

“I think the response has been tremendous,” she said. “It was amazing to feel that community support, just everyone showed up.”

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Rally with Relay for a cure — Annual event offers hope, way to help fight cancer

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Phyllis Swarner snuggles with her cat, Mutto, in her home in Kenai. She will be one of many volunteers and survivors at the Central Peninsula Relay for Life on Friday and Saturday at the Kenai Central High School track.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Phyllis Swarner snuggles with her cat, Mutto, in her home in Kenai. She will be one of many volunteers and survivors at the Central Peninsula Relay for Life on Friday and Saturday at the Kenai Central High School track.

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

May 19, 1999, was the worst day of Phyllis Swarner’s life, but also the day it changed for the best.

She was 52 years old, living in Florida, working for the civil service at Eglin Air Force Base. Life was going along just fine. Until it wasn’t.

“I got a phone call at 5 o’clock that morning that my dad had passed away,” she said. He had been sick. Even though it wasn’t entirely a surprise, the grief and sadness were more than enough to leave her reeling.

And yet, then came another call, at 9 a.m., with the results of her recent mammogram. It was merely a routine scan, as there was no history of breast cancer in her family. She felt fine. There was no reason to think anything would be found. But something was — a 2-centimeter lump in her left breast.

“So it was the day that my life changed,” she said.

Still, given her lack of risk factors, her doctor wasn’t overly concerned. It could be benign. Go to the funeral, deal with your dad’s death and we’ll do a biopsy when you get back, she was told. A month later when the biopsy was done, it showed the lump was cancer, and that there was infiltration into the lymph nodes.

“I found out not only was it cancer, but I had a second precancerous condition, as well,” she said.

“When you hear you’ve got cancer you think you’re dead. I don’t care what they say, you just think, ‘Start preparing for your will and your last days, because life’s over, period,’” she said.

But her life, in a way, had just begun again. In 1995 she had attended her 35th high school reunion and reconnected with her classmates from Fairbanks, where she’d begrudgingly spent her childhood.

“I’d hated Alaska growing up,” she said. “Fairbanks was so remote and cold, and I had roots in North Carolina. I was close to my grandparents there, so Fairbanks felt so far away from everyone and isolated at that time. And 50 and 60 below zero is cold weather. So I swore I’d go as far south as I could, and I did, I went to Florida.”

But she was finding herself more and more pulled back to Alaska, particularly to one classmate — Dennis Swarner, who had become an optometrist in Kenai.

“Dennis and I knew each other since the third grade. We have known each other forever. We graduated from high school together. And I’ve never been intimidated by the ‘Dr. Swarner’ part. He was that corny kid I had to put up with in third grade and he hasn’t changed since,” she joked.

But her feelings for him certainly did. They reconnected and stayed in touch. He came to Florida for a conference, looked her up, dropped by, and that was that.

“My life has never been the same since,” she said.

As if long-distance romances aren’t challenging enough, this was about as long a distance as the U.S. offers — Florida to Alaska. He had a practice in Kenai, and she wasn’t too keen on moving back north. Then came the cancer diagnosis and the years-long process of surgery and recovery. That could easily have spelled the end of the relationship. Instead, it was the beginning of Swarner’s new life trajectory.

“Pow, I had cancer, and that put everything in a different perspective,” she said.

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Birth center gets new lease on life — Management change keeps Women’s Way in operation

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Russet and Bill Morrow, of Massachusetts, watch as Andrea Stiers, a certified direct-entry midwife, performs a neonatal exam on their granddaughter at the Woman's Way Midwifery in Soldotna. Stiers recently retired and in January the midwifery came under the management of Heritage Birth Centers, which also runs midwiferies in Anchorage and Palmer.

Photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. Russet and Bill Morrow, of Massachusetts, watch as Andrea Stiers, a certified direct-entry midwife, performs a neonatal exam on their granddaughter at the Woman’s Way Midwifery in Soldotna. Stiers recently retired and in January the midwifery came under the management of Heritage Birth Centers, which also runs midwiferies in Anchorage and Palmer.

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

In TV shows, giving birth often entails a woman in a hospital, lying in a mechanical bed, her knees held up to her shoulders and the doctor and nurses yelling, “PUSH!”

In life off the TV screen, though, not all women opt for this type of birth, preferring a range of options beyond the hospital model. On the central Kenai Peninsula, with the assistance and supervision of a midwife, some women choose to give birth at home or in the spalike setting of the only out-of-hospital birth center on the peninsula, which recently came under new management.

“We began managing it at the end of January and it’s all just happenstance, really,” said Kirsten Gerrish. She, along with her business partner, Lena Kilic, are the owners of Heritage Birth Centers in Anchorage and Palmer, and recently assumed management of Woman’s Way Midwifery in Soldotna.

Gerrish and Kilic are both state-licensed certified direct-entry midwives and have certifications in neonatal resuscitation, CPR and IV, and they said they weren’t necessarily looking to take on the responsibilities of a third birth center.

However, Andrea Stiers, the longtime manager and CDM midwife at Woman’s Way Midwifery, was preparing to retire to spend more time with her own family, and the other midwife there, Heather Forbes, had never managed a birth center of her own.

“We just thought the idea of there not being a birth center or any midwives on the peninsula, besides Homer, was just sad,” Gerrish said. “The community seemed supportive of keeping it going, there was the need, there already were the facilities with the license and a midwife already, so we decided to keep it going.”

Gerrish added that, populationwise, there aren’t more midwife services in the area.

“Alaska doesn’t have enough midwives or midwiferies to meet the need. The largest concentration is in Palmer, where there are three, currently, and a new one opening soon. Anchorage has two, Fairbanks has two and Juneau one, and with the population of the Kenai-Soldotna area it makes sense to have one,” Gerrish said.

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Do you know what doulas do? Event to raise awareness of birth options

By Joseph Robertia

Redoubt Reporter

When it comes to giving birth, the image that often comes to mind is a woman in a hospital bed, surrounded by bright lights and blue-clad doctors and nurses, with everyone shouting “Push!” This might be the most familiar birthing option these days, there are others around the central peninsula, some that are alternatives to a hospital birth and some that complement going the traditional route.

Bethe Smith, of Soldotna, has had three children and experienced dramatically different births with each, so much so that the last one inspired her to pursue a career assisting other women during childbirth.

“I have three children — Ciara, 11, Rennen, 8, and Taryn, almost 2. When I had my first I was 21 and I put full trust in my doctors and did not question much,” she said.

Smith was advised to have her labor induced, rather than waiting for birth to begin on its own. She was given several birth-inducing drugs, as well as an epidural to relax her and prevent her own discomfort.

“After a long nap I was told it was time to push. So I did. She was coming and they were not ready so they told me to stop. They had to announce over the intercom over the whole hospital that we needed a doctor in room 418 STAT. Yikes. I did not know who the doctor was. It was very scary and I felt very out of control,” she said.

Her firstborn ended up suffering from gastroesophageal reflux disease and there were problems with the child latching on during breast-feeding. The delivery of her second child was an equally less-than-pleasant birth experience.

“With my second I was given directed pushing and I started hemorrhaging. Again, I was scared and felt out of control,” she said.

For the birth of her third child, Smith wanted to try an alternative to the at-the-hospital model of birth. She researched her options and decided to use a birthing center at Woman’s Way Midwifery in Soldotna and midwife there to deliver the child.

“My last one I had at the birth center and it was amazing. I labored at home with my husband. Then when I got to the birth center she was here 15 minutes later. It was very calm and relaxing. I was allowed to listen to my body as I had her. I wanted this for every mother,” Smith said. “With my birth experiences I know that the hospital can be very intimidating and nursing does not always go smoothly, so I wanted to help women make educated decisions about their birth and parenting choices.”

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Abortion debate on the home front — Protesters, supporters mark Roe v. Wade decision anniversary

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Three of Laura Burke’s 10 kids hold anti-abortion signs during a rally in Kenai on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Three of Laura Burke’s 10 kids hold anti-abortion signs during a rally in Kenai on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.

Redoubt Reporter

In the last 40 years, a lot has changed in the abortion debate. The specific issues being argued have gone through different iterations, the battlefields have cropped up in various states, the players at the forefront have retired, passed the baton or even switched sides. Even the lexicon of the discussion has changed, as with Planned Parenthood recently announcing that it would no longer use the term “pro-choice.”

Yet, some things have remained very much the same. First and foremost, the U.S. Supreme Court landmark decision in Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1973, still stands, dictating that a women’s right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extends to a woman’s decision to have an abortion, trumping states’ decisions on the matter.

And another thing that hasn’t changed is that abortion is still very much a current events issue.

On Jan. 22, Bob Bird, of Nikiski, stood on a busy street corner in Kenai waving anti-abortion signs, as he has done every anniversary of the Roe decision since 1984. Some years it’s at the “Y” intersection in Soldotna. Others, like this year, he and fellow abortion protestors tromped back and forth through the slushy snow at the intersection of the Kenai Spur Highway and Bridge Access Road, chosen for its high volume of traffic on a weekday afternoon, and also because of its proximity to the office of the only doctor on the central Kenai Peninsula who performs medical abortion procedures.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” said Bird, a social studies teacher at Nikiski Middle-High School and former candidate for the U.S. Senate. He plans to continue protesting until change comes.

Though he notes that some change has already come, he said, pointing to the Jan. 14, 2013, cover story of Time magazine, with the headline, “40 years ago, abortion-rights activists won an epic victory with Roe v. Wade. They’ve been losing ever since.”

“The abortion rate has gone down, the influence of Planned Parenthood has come down, even the pro-choice movement wants to switch slogans,” Bird said. “So I think, like (Winston) Churchill said, ‘This is not the beginning of the end, but it is the end of the beginning.’”

Bird comes at his stance against abortion from his religious and moral beliefs, but his most vocal platform against Roe is one of opposition to “overreaching federal authority,” he said. Bird is an active supporter of nullification — the stance that a state has the right to nullify federal laws that the state deems unconstitutional. Abortion, Bird said, falls in that category, and he believes that the federal government has no business legislating social issues, particularly over the top of states’ right to do so.

“At some point I think enough people have realized abortions didn’t solve the problems. The courts didn’t end the controversy. Social issues should be handled on a state-by-state basis,” Bird said.

There’s no foretelling what Alaska would decide were that authority left up to states. On one hand, abortion was legal in Alaska before Roe. On the other, recent legal action has installed roadblocks to access to abortion, such as the parental notification ballot initiative that requires at least one parent to be notified before a minor child can obtain an abortion, or else for a judge to bypass the requirement in certain circumstances. The law went into effect in 2010 and was upheld by an Alaska Superior Court judge in 2012.

“I think it’s best left to the local level,” Bird said. “I have faith that whatever Alaska decides will be different than what Roe versus Wade permits.”

He also has faith that the debate is changing. For one thing, people’s stomach for partial-birth abortions has turned, and the anti-abortion camp is diversifying, still holding the religiously and socially conservative, as well as people who oppose abortion for legal, political or civil rights arguments. It used to be that the anti-abortionists often were charged with not caring about the babies or mothers and what their lives would be like once forced into birth, but that’s less and less the case, Bird said.And Bird said that he sees the nature of feminism changing — no longer is it the movement of the 1960s and ’70s, which so vehemently pushed for abortion rights. Bird said that he sees the younger generation of women being more like what he calls “the original feminists” of the country’s youth.

“The new generation is looking like the original feminism,” Bird said. “Susan B. Anthony — I love having her on the dollar. She denounced abortion as a way for men to degrade women. I think this generation of young people, whether they are religious or not, are not the ’60s and ’70s women. I think they’re the ones who realize, ‘My goodness, I’m lucky I didn’t get aborted.’”

The others joining Bird were there for various reasons. Laura Burke’s 10 kids helping hold anti-abortion signs were a direct underscore to her belief in the sanctity of human life.

Dr. Steve Hileman, an ER doctor at Central Peninsula Hospital, said that, for him, abortion is a civil rights issue, and a difficult one, at that.

“It’s a hard issue. I’m a doctor, I take care of people who face this all the time. I try not to be judgmental, but I think it’s important that people take a stand for what’s right,” Hileman said.

He said that he thinks the nature of the debate has changed over the years, with more room for discussion, rather than diatribes.

“I’d like to think that people are more willing to discuss it without being angry about it. I’m not sure that I see any legal solution to it, but I don’t think conversion is an external that can be directed by law, either way. So I’m mostly here just because I want people to think about it. It’s a matter of conscience,” he said.

For Nancy Whiting, of Nikiski, the issue is moral as well as political.

“I believe that life begins at conception. It’s been shown that a baby’s heartbeat begins just a few weeks after conception, and so I view abortion as killing a life,” she said. “And I agree with Bob that the federal government and the Supreme Court don’t have the constitutional right to interfere with social issues. The people have the right to decide, and the states have the rights after that. The federal government really has very few rights, and I think they’ve overstepped into a lot of areas that are not their business.

“I feel very strongly about life and liberty and to pursue happiness. I believe in the Constitution. And it begins with life. I think this abortion issue has to do with the value of life, and when we don’t value life and when our children are raised in a society that doesn’t value life from the beginning, I think that’s causing a lot of societal ills,” Whiting said.

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Rock solid support — Community lends love, hope to cancer patients with Written in Stone

By Jenny Neyman

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Meggean Bos, a volunteer at Central Peninsula Hospital, writes a message Saturday on the wall of a concrete vault that will hold the accelerator in the new radiation oncology clinic under construction at Central Peninsula Hospital.

Photos by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. Meggean Bos, a volunteer at Central Peninsula Hospital, writes a message Saturday on the wall of a concrete vault that will hold the accelerator in the new radiation oncology clinic under construction at Central Peninsula Hospital.

Redoubt Reporter

Angela Beplat’s message is longer than her hair. The note is one of support for a friend fighting cancer, written Saturday on a wall of the concrete vault that will hold the radiation accelerator in the new oncology treatment clinic under construction at Central Peninsula Hospital:

“Dear Friend. Watching you fight this battle this last year has opened my eyes to the strength and endurance every cancer fighter needs to face this head-on. … Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be your friend and learn alongside you — through your pain, suffering, pokes/prods/body/hair changes, but most of all seeing hope through your eyes has changed me forever! I love you and I will always be there for you.”

The hair she cut last year, also in support of her friend.

“My really close friend Casey has been fighting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for the last year and I shaved my head for her last April, and have just been with her on this whole journey. She’s my age — 34 with two young kids,” said Beplat.

When it comes to cancer, it is not unusual for friends, family, co-workers, community members and even complete strangers to do what they can to help.

Fundraisers are well supported, from impromptu spaghetti feeds to annual community events, like the summer’s Relay for Life or this month’s Way Out Women snowmachine ride. Knitters make hats and scarves for people losing their hair to chemotherapy. Volunteers and staff at the hospital make the oncology department feel more like family care than just cancer care.

The hospital’s administration and board of directors answered the community’s wish to have radiation therapy available on the central Kenai Peninsula, rather than patients having to travel to Anchorage or beyond for treatment. The Kenai Peninsula Borough committed $4.7 million for the construction of the new clinic.

Saturday, people braved icy roads and a damp walk in the chilly rain out to the construction site to contribute another measure of support by writing messages on the concrete walls of the vault. As construction progresses, the messages will be covered over and blocked from view. But through the Central Peninsula Hospital Foundation’s “Written in Stone” project, the messages will be recorded and printed in books that will be given to every patient receiving radiation treatment.

Some messages were spiritual, offering comfort in the assurance of God’s love:

“Never, ever, lose hope. To hope is to trust God. To trust God is to have faith. To have faith is to believe. To believe is to hope.”

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