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Karen Riedel

In the Midst of Compassion, Remission

Holy Name Cancer Center - Karen Riedel

A cancer journey is never easy but Karen Riedel's was particularly arduous. Before things turned around, she was hospitalized for nearly two months and came close to dying. But Karen and her family never gave up hope and Karen never stopped fighting.

Her sister, Donna Sacco, has been with her every step of the way and chronicled Karen's odyssey. Donna marvels at the twists and turns that have brought Karen to a place none of their family thought possible after Karen's diagnosis of stage 4 cervical cancer.

"We were told there is no cure for Karen's advanced disease, only treatment," Donna said. "Karen's spirits were always good, though. We laughed a lot. And now, she's been told she's cancer free! She has to continue treatment to keep the cancer at bay but at this point, there is no detectable cancer."

Donna credits the care Karen received from the many staff members at Holy Name Medical Center with not only her miraculous recovery but for the compassion they showed Karen throughout her ordeal. And the person she said is at the top of the list is Dr. Sharyn Lewin, Medical Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Holy Name.

"I know Dr. Lewin is too humble to accept credit for my sister's results but it is because of her diligence and positive attitude that we are still here today," Donna said.

Karen was diagnosed in Nov. 2017, at 55 years old. She thought she had a urinary tract infection but a scan showed a mass and she needed an oncologist. Her doctor recommended Dr. Lewin. Before calling Dr. Lewin, Karen reached out to Eileen Esposito, a nurse manager at Holy Name, who used to live near her, for advice. Eileen immediately suggested Dr. Lewin.

"Everyone said we should get a second opinion but after meeting Dr. Lewin, we just had a good feeling from the start," Donna said. "We felt so comfortable at Holy Name – Eileen was like our quarterback and Dr. Lewin explained everything so well, we didn't need to go anywhere else."

Karen had a grueling road – she had other health issues from suffering a stroke a decade ago – and she underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Over the year, she was admitted to the hospital with infections, the tumors had crushed her urethras, and for a while she couldn't walk. Even eating was difficult.

"When I had to leave Karen overnight in the hospital I was really nervous but Julie Kim, a nurse on her floor made me feel so much better," Donna said. "All the nurses were on the same page. If Karen needed something, they never said they had to go check her chart. They all knew exactly what she needed and Julie was just there for her all the time."

Karen was in and out of the hospital as she continued treatment. At one point, she needed pain management – the cancer was around her heart, in her lymph nodes and lungs – and she was "going downhill fast."

Dr. Richard Rosenbluth, a palliative care specialist at Holy Name, "assessed the situation quickly and made sure Karen wasn't in pain," Donna said. "When Karen couldn't get to his office, he'd come to the ER and he used very low doses of medication, explaining about dependency."

Slowly, Karen started to improve.

"We were shocked," Donna said. "Karen continued with chemotherapy treatment but Dr. Lewin always asked how she was feeling and adjusted the medication each time. She kept saying that quality of life was important and if Karen was in bed all day, it wasn't worth it. She always gave Karen the option of continuing treatment – it was always about my sister."

Meantime, Karen had nephrostomy tubes, to help eliminate urine, placed in her back. At home, they would get infected and she needed to see specialists for relief. Donna said Dr. Vincent Gallo, one of Holy Name's interventional radiologists, was always so patient with Karen. She recalled the day before Thanksgiving when most people had gone home, Dr. Gallo offered to do the procedure to change Karen's tube.

Soon after the holidays, Karen thought she had another urinary tract infection. More scans were taken. But this time, the news was astonishing. All the tumors from her chest were gone and those in her abdomen were smaller. The remaining tumors could be treated with radiation.

"In radiation we met Dr. Benjamin Rosenthbluth and the rest of the staff, who were also very kind to Karen," Donna said. "It's not easy to go through so many treatments and not get down once in a while but the staff was so encouraging that Karen never missed a day of radiation."

Donna said the kindness shown to Karen extended beyond medical personnel. On so many trips to the ER, Donna would pull up to Holy Name's valet parking and find even the valets were smiling and quick to offer assistance. "Between the wheelchair and my sister, it wasn't always easy.

"Hospital staffs are expected to be professional and caring but at Holy Name, it goes way beyond that," Donna said. "I recommend Holy Name highly to anyone who asks about our experience."

Learn more about Karen Riedel's gynecologic oncology doctor today