Everyone treats me like extended family
Claudia Zorn Schaefer on her journey from volunteer to patient to advocate for Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center
Claudia Zorn Schaefer has long been an ardent believer in supporting her community through advocacy. Her passion led to a role serving on the board of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center Foundation, lending her 30 years of experience as a marketing and communications professional. Through her service, Schaefer grew acquainted with Novant Health physicians and other team members, and she enjoyed spreading the word about Novant Health to others.
In 2019, however, her life took an unexpected turn. Schaefer began experiencing a dry cough. It persisted day and night. A few weeks later, she developed abdominal pain and other unusual symptoms. After a CT scan was conducted, Schaefer was told she had advanced non-small cell lung cancer as well as peritoneal cancer, which is similar to ovarian cancer.
She was admitted to the emergency room at Forsyth Medical Center. During the course of her weeklong hospital stay, Schaefer said she felt more and more at ease as she realized she had Novant Health’s “A-team on my side.” That team was led by attending physician, Angelece Kikerkov, MD, whom Schaefer described as her “guardian angel,” but all the physicians and nurses in charge of her care made an impact.
“I still remember every team member, including those who came to clean my hospital room and bring me meals,” Schaefer said. “Everyone was so conscientious, compassionate and very friendly.”
She began chemotherapy treatment at the Novant Health Derrick L. Davis Cancer Institute in August 2019 under the guidance of oncologists Amy Wallace, MD, and Demetria Jacks, MD.
“I actually looked forward to chemo day every three weeks to visit with the nurses and the volunteers. They were all awesome,” Schaefer said.
When she began losing her hair, she was invited to select a soft knitted cap from the basket of beautifully crocheted hats made by community volunteers.
“That really touched my heart,” Schaefer said.
The Novant Health team moved quickly with genetic testing for mutations. When mutations are detected in test results, doctors can often pursue more targeted treatment, which was the case for Schaefer. She tested positive for two different mutations, which led to specific therapies that are intended to inhibit progression and extend remission. After eight cycles of chemotherapy and surgery in July 2020, Schaefer received wonderful news: She was in full remission for both cancers.
Schaefer continues to have frequent appointments at the Cancer Institute to monitor her blood work, meet with her oncologists and get periodic scans. She enjoys seeing team members, from Rayvon Mitchell, the curbside assistant who greets her at the front door, to the check-in staff, nurses and doctors. In honor of these team members, Schaefer has made several donations to Novant Health Foundation over the past two years.
“Everyone treats me like extended family,” Schaefer said. “They’re authentic, caring and very thorough. It’s clear that they’re passionate about what they do. I can tell that they love their jobs. What’s truly remarkable is that they interact with every patient with the same concern and attention they give to me.”
Because her immune system was compromised from her treatment, Schaefer was already quarantining before the COVID-19 pandemic response began.
“COVID-19 restrictions weren’t all that different from what I had become accustomed to,” said Schaefer, who began wearing a face mask during her six months of chemotherapy treatment whenever she went to public events. “The biggest impact of the pandemic has been not being able to have friends and family visit us in our home.”
Even with in-person interaction at a minimum, Schaefer has found ways to continue her advocacy on behalf of Novant Health. She is active on social media and encourages friends to support various initiatives at the Cancer Institute.
For Schaefer, music has been an important way for her to engage with the community. As a child, she learned to play the piano. In recent years, she regularly led singalongs for individuals struggling with dementia.
Since her cancer diagnosis, Schaefer has continued to stay creative, writing music that speaks to her love of community and her gratitude for the love and support from her devoted husband, Marcus, as well as family and friends. Her 8-year-old boxer, who she and her husband rescued just before Thanksgiving 2014, has been her constant companion, walking partner and creative muse, inspiring both music and lyrics.
“Music and art are powerful tools in healing,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer believes her priorities have changed since her cancer journey began. She’s less concerned about the future and lives more in the moment.
“Remission from advanced stage cancer is no small thing,” Schaefer said. “However much time I get, I’m grateful for the tremendous care I’ve received. Whatever happens to my health in the future, I know that my A-team at the Cancer Institute will see me through, both physically and emotionally. That gives me great comfort and allows me to enjoy the good health I have today.”
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