Imagine yourself pregnant with twins, overwhelmed with joy and ready for these little miracles of life when you’re suddenly diagnosed with stage four breast cancer. Will you live long enough to birth your precious children? If you do, how will you breast-feed them? Why did this happen to you? Who will care for you while you’re sick and unable to work?
Social worker Tina Staley, born and raised in South Asheville, asked exactly those questions and sought answers to help people experiencing the profound emotional distress brought on by cancer diagnosis. “I feel so blessed to have been raised in Asheville,” said Staley. “When I was 13 I volunteered at a nursing home and would sit and listen to the elderly share their stories after school and would talk to them about their life and their family. When they would talk, their expression changed and they were so full of life and they were wanting that sense of purpose to prepare for the next chapter and the next journey. That’s really where my inspiration and my passion started to grow.”
Those early years led Staley to go on and nurture that love of listening and sharing with those transitioning from their earthly bodies. It moved her to develop a holistic, personalized system of psychosocial care, which she aptly named Pathfinders. Launched in Aspen, Colorado in 2003 along with psychotherapist Kristin MacDermott, these women set about creating a model for personalized heartfelt service for those diagnosed with cancer, providing them with a friendly shoulder to lean on, a warm meal at night, someone to plant pink peonies in their garden and most importantly get to the heart of how they envision themselves moving through the end of life.
What do they want to be remembered for? Do they feel as if they’re ready to move on with a peaceful heart and restful soul. Regardless of the need, a Pathfinder counselor is there to love and care for each person through their remission or to the end of life using their personalized Seven Pillars of Personal Recovery. By navigating the depth of the overwhelming psychological, emotional and physical issues that accompany cancer, these women and their employed Pathfinders foster therapeutic healing and individual development for patients, their families and caregivers.
“People are terrified of dying and no one is addressing the issue” Staley whispered with compassion in her eyes. “We all talk about when we should be born and most people don’t know that they have a choice of whether or not they want to undergo that last round of treatment or if they simply want to take that last drive down the road they grew up on or spend that last Sunday with family. It’s about living and having a choice about how you live and how you want to leave this world.”
The program’s success even convinced researchers at Duke University to study their unique model and determine the empowering psychosocial effects it was showing in those diagnosed with cancer. It didn’t take long for their research to show the momentous impact that their one-on-one care had on a patient’s mental distress and physical ailments. In fact, they found the overwhelming success in the program’s ability to significantly empower someone as they move through one of the most traumatic experiences of their life.
It’s such a great feeling when I have patients come to me and say, “Since I got this treatment, it’s truly been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I’ve learned to live. I’ve learned to love and I’ve learned to give,” said Staley.
So, rather than asking yourself what is going to happen to me? Where will I end up? Why is something wrong with me? You have a best friend, a Pathfinder, to hold your hand, wipe your tears and keep your heart an unwavering flame in the midst of darkness. Don’t miss this incredibly strong woman share her story at this year’s TEDxAsheville.
Listen to a few of Pathfinder’s amazing stories here: Pathfinders