Kids' room at Providence would do justice to Butcher's legacy
Published: September 8, 2006
Establishing a permanent, public memorial to Susan Butcher is just a matter of time.
She was an Alaska icon, someone who transcended mushing to become a symbol of adventure, determination and guts. News of her death Aug. 5 came from a U.S. senator's office, something that just doesn't happen very often. Flags flew at half-staff last Friday, the day before her memorial service in Fairbanks, an honor usually reserved for soldiers and politicians.
But no statue, park or plaque would be a greater tribute than the one being planned for Providence Alaska Medical Center's new $35 million cancer center -- a children's room for healthy kids with sick parents.
Of all the things Butcher represented and accomplished, it was her status as mother she was most proud of. She valued the resources available in Seattle to her little girls while she spent months there in a hospital. And it's safe to bet she'd enthusiastically support anything that helps other kids get through the kind of rough times her own kids are going through.
"This is something functional that embraces more of Susan than just dogs," said DeeDee Jonrowe, an Iditarod musher who will help lead fundraising efforts for the room.
Jonrowe, 52, is the perfect person to involve in the project. She's a magnet for people, which will help her raise money. And she had a unique relationship with Butcher.
"For 27 years Susan's been in my life," she said. "We've grown so much, from trail companions, to mentor and student, to peers, and to being true friends that had aspects of our lives that very few people could understand, because they haven't been in the storms we've been in."
She's talking about storms both literal and metaphorical. The pair weathered all kinds of peril over the years in the 1,110-mile Iditarod and other races. And they both battled cancer, Jonrowe fighting breast cancer that was diagnosed in 2002 and Butcher falling to leukemia at age 51 last month, less than a year after her diagnosis.
Jonrowe said her illness taught her to grab opportunities when they come, like the chance to compete in next month's Ironman World Championship triathlon -- even though her swimming skills are a bit suspect.
"I've gotta do it now, because the next checkup could have a problem," she said. "Every six months they could say, 'We found a spot.' "
So rest assured that Jonrowe will do all she can -- and do it now -- to make sure the children's room is worthy of bearing her friend's name.
The original plans were for a modest activity room primarily for the children but open to adults too, said Judy Dierkhising, director of oncology development for Providence.
When Butcher died, Providence asked Jonrowe if it would be appropriate to honor Butcher in some way at the cancer center.
Jonrowe quickly zeroed in on the children's room and got the go-ahead from David Monson to name it after his wife. Now the plans for the room are much more ambitious.
"The room is bigger and the project is bigger," Dierkhising said. "It's much more organized and is set up to key on children."
Monson will choose the name, Dierkhising said, as well as offer ideas and advice along the way. After all, he became an instant expert on such things during the last year, watching daughters Tekla, 11, and Chisana, 6, deal with their mother's illness. While their mother underwent a bone marrow transplant and other treatments, the girls attended the Hutch School in Seattle -- a hospital-operated school for the children of cancer patients that provides traditional education as well as an environment in which to talk about what's happening to their parents.
What's planned at Providence is a room, not a school, but Jonrowe is thinking big. She envisions a staff of counselors who can help children cope with the trauma of a parent sick with cancer. She envisions a room filled with diversions for kids who need to escape. She envisions a place that offers comfort to kids who otherwise don't know where to find it.
"My goal is to help fundraise, because what is in that center will be what we raise for it,'' Jonrowe said. "I'd like it to be next to none. Because Susan was next to none."
Beth Bragg's opinion column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.