William Whitlow keeps old livestock cards, yellowed with age, in his lapel pocket. They are a reminder of his cattle-farming days, but they also serve another practical purpose.
They are a diary of his cancer treatment for the past five years.
He uses the lines on the weathered cards to record doctor’s appointments, his surgery date, prescribed medications and chemotherapy treatments. He can tell you the day in 2012 when he was told in Atlanta he had an aggressive form of skin cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma that had spread to his lymph nodes. His wife, Janelle, was by his side the entire time.
He also can recall the day five years ago that a doctor told him to get his affairs in order and prepare for hospice. He worried about having to tell his sons, local veterinarian Dr. William Whitlow and local optometrist Dr. John Whitlow, and their families.
But then, he also can tell you about the days he received hope after being connected to Dr. Wassim Mchayleh, medical director of Oncology Services at WellStar West Georgia Medical Center.
His path to Dr. Mchayleh started at a large Atlanta hospital, where he learned about a new experimental treatment that would target the cancer in his neck and lymph nodes that surgeons were unable to remove.
Better still, he learned he wouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta for treatments, because Dr. Mchayleh could provide the experimental treatment in LaGrange at WGMC.
“I had my blood drawn that day, and by the next day, I was having an infusion at Dr. Mchayleh’s,” he said of the chemo treatment. “Dr. Mchayleh didn’t want to waste any time.”
He had that first infusion in September 2013 at WGMC. He had one treatment every week and then tapered to one every other week. With treatments lasting about four hours each, the 82-year-old said he “flirted with the nurses” to pass the time.
Mr. Whitlow received his 100th chemo treatment on July 7, 2016. He had more than 130 treatments when he completed the final one on June 8 this year.
“Every single time I was there—over 130 times—Dr. Mchayleh was always there to see me and talk to me, and he always would shake my hand and not let go,” he said. “He always stayed so positive and so determined when he discussed my treatment and care, and I think that’s a lot of what kept me going.”
The nurses said Mr. Whitlow energized the entire team during his visits. He never came empty-handed; he always brought them fresh produce, candy or another small gift.
And when he walked in the door, the nurses would joke and say, “Y’all get busy! Mr. Whitlow’s here!” said Heather Tippy, RN, OCN, oncology research coordinator.
“He always brightened our spirits when he came, and we hope we did the same for him,” Tippy said.
Mr. Whitlow said the nurses did indeed lift his spirits.
“I was so sick, and I felt so bad,” he said. “But I looked forward to going and to seeing them, because to me, they’re as sweet as chicken pie.”
Tracy Griffin, a friend of the Whitlow family, also has been sweet as chicken pie to Mr. Whitlow. He said she lives near Rock Mills, Ala., and has traveled to LaGrange to accompany him for “about 95 percent” of his chemo treatments, he said.
“The amount of time she’s spent in taking care of me through all this is really pretty remarkable,” he said. “I’m just very grateful.”
Mr. Whitlow credits Dr. Mchayleh and the clinical team in WellStar WGMC Oncology Services for saving his life. It’s been five years since another physician told him to prepare for the end. That is time Mr. Whitlow cherishes.
“I thank God for Dr. Mchayleh,” Mr. Whitlow said. “He and the nurses and everyone else there have been extremely good to me.”