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Against the Odds: How one North Country family overcame devestating medical diagnosis' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Kellie Rowden-Racette, Contributing Writer   
Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Susan Nolan’s dining room table is piled high with shiny purple, green, and gold strings of beads. Susan, a pleasant-looking woman with rosy cheeks and smiling eyes, has carefully sorted them according to color, length, and bead size and looks as if she can’t quite figure out what else to do with them. “Maybe I could recycle them somehow?” she muses, running her hands over them. Wearing a new grey T-shirt with “Ole Miss” printed in bold red letters, Susan is still surrounded by the aura of just having come back from a great vacation. “Rick just retired in December after 25 years and we never got to honeymoon or really vacation, so we decided to take two weeks for a car trip down to Biloxi [Miss.] for Mardi Gras,” she explains, still playing with the beads. “It was right on the gulf and it was gorgeous! We had a fantastic time.” In the small white house sitting at the top of a hill in AuSable Valley, the Nolan household is cozy and unassuming. Inside, the kitchen and living area is kept neat with plenty of knickknacks on display. An elderly dog named Pepper wanders around sniffing and surveying while a yellow bird, Sunny, squawks from its nearby cage. In the background a police monitor chirps and sputters, alerting nearby authorities, and Susan, of local activity. “Oh, I’m just nosey,” she says of the scanner. “I like to hear everything that’s going on. So does my husband – he’s even nosier than I am!” Susan Nolan grew up as Susan Rhino in Ausable Valley, the middle child between two brothers. Her father was a mechanic at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, while her mother stayed at home. “It was good to have my mother home -- it was a nice feeling to know she’d be there after school.” She graduated from AuSable Valley Central School in 1977, and met her future husband, Richard Nolan, during high school when they were both working on the school play, “Harvey.” Susan had taken a role as a male cab driver “because they didn’t have enough boys interested in being in the play,” and Richard worked on props. Soon he began giving her rides home from school so she wouldn’t have to ride the bus. She says she knew then they were going to be married. “He was so shy,” she recalls. “But I decided right then I would chase him until he caught me,” she laughs. They were married in 1979 and Susan worked as a nurses’ aide for eight years and then as a ward clerk. Afterward she worked as a unit secretary for the federal prison system until 1998. While most of her duties were administrative in nature, occasionally she was pulled from behind her desk and thrust into the middle of the action. One of her favorite assignments was when she worked in the control center after an inmate had escaped. “I got to hear everything! I can’t remember all the details, but he was gone for three days and they caught him right in the area. The black flies kind of got to him and he was ready to give up!” she recalls, laughing. Although she “just fell into” her job at the prison, she says she truly enjoyed it and was disappointed when, in 1998, she was diagnosed with sarcoidosos, an autoimmune condition, and had to retire. But that certainly wasn’t the first time a medical diagnoses changed Susan Nolan’s life. During one week in 1991, the Nolans were given two devastating pieces of information about their two daughters, Devann and Emilly, which changed things dramatically. “They told us on a Monday that Emily was deaf and needed a hearing aide and on the Friday we found out Devann had bone cancer,” Susan recalls. “At first we thought it was the end of the world that Emily was deaf, but then when we heard ‘cancer,’ deafness didn’t seem so bad.” The Nolans didn’t waste any time taking action to help their children. Emily, who is 85 percent nerve deaf, was fitted for hearing aides and luckily adapted to them quickly. Susan recalls how the doctor warned them that it might take a while for Emily to get used to wearing them, but instead they had more trouble getting her to take them off at night. “She wouldn’t part with them. We had to wait until she was asleep to take them out!” So the bigger fight was to save Devann. “At first she was misdiagnosed with the type of cancer and they told us there was no treatment at that time and she maybe had six months to live,” recalls Susan quietly. “Well I couldn’t accept that. Nobody tells you that your eleven year old is going to die and you just take it.” So the Nolans sought a second opinion in Burlington, Vt., which sadly concurred with the initial diagnosis. Still undeterred, they brought Devann to Boston for a third opinion. There they were told there was a chance. “They said it was serious and that they might not be able to save her leg, but they would save her life,” explains Susan. “They ended up saving both.” During the extensive chemotherapy treatments Susan never left Devann’s side. Susan said she made a promise to her daughter that she would never lie to her and she would be there. And she was. Today Devann, now 27, still walks with crutches, but is leading a happy life nearby, working as a counselor for Stop Domestic Violence. Emily, now 20, also lives close by in Plattsburgh and currently is studying to be a registered nurse. “The whole experience made us better people. We’re more aware that when we’re down and out there are people worse off and now we’re more receptive to other people’s problems,” says Susan, reflecting on what her family has been through. “I’m so grateful that my daughters are still near me – it’s taught us to live one day at a time.”

 

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