When Tom LaFave was diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer in 2015, the Escanaba resident didn’t let the dire news get him down.
“He was very positive the whole time,” says his wife, JoEllen. “The diagnosis was a shock, and we knew it was serious, but Tom’s mindset was ‘we just have to do what we have to to fight this.’ That was his motto in life.”
Tom and JoEllen were high school sweethearts who married and raised four children. Following high school, Tom enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served until his honorable discharge in 1967. During his time in the service, Tom was promoted to sergeant and earned numerous medals for his service.
For nearly 40 years, Tom was a machine operator for the former Mead Paper Company, the largest employer in town. Tom spent his entire career at the paper mill before retiring in 2008. He was also a handyman. “He could fix anything,” says JoEllen. “We never had to hire help.”
But Tom did need help when it came to treating his cancer. Nasopharyngeal cancer is a rare type of cancer that affects the part of the throat connecting the back of the nose to the back of the mouth (the pharynx). Tom never suspected cancer. “His nose was running, and he would have sore throats,” said JoEllen. “We thought maybe it was allergies or a sinus infection.”
Tom underwent chemo and radiation and eventually his cancer stabilized. Despite the effects of cancer, he was able to winter in Arizona and travel to Washington, D.C., on an Honor Flight, a program for veterans who are invited to tour memorials in the nation’s capital to thank them for their service. “He was in a wheelchair, but he enjoyed his trip immensely,” says JoEllen.
Unfortunately, the cancer returned in 2019, and Tom resumed his treatments, including Keytruda immunotherapy. For more than two years, Tom continued his treatment plan until “it wasn’t working anymore,” says JoEllen. Tom’s last treatment was in September 2021.
Tom and his family decided that hospice would be the best next step. OSF Bay de Noc Hospice was formed in 1978 as Bay de Noc Hospice, Inc. and merged with OSF HealthCare in 1995. It’s one of the oldest rural hospices in the state of Michigan and serves the counties of Delta, Dickinson and Menominee.
Hospice is for patients of all ages with a life-limiting illness with a prognosis of six months or less to live, and who have decided they want to focus on comfort care.
“Hospice gave us peace of mind and comfort,” says JoEllen. “I wouldn’t panic if something was wrong. I could call them. They were very helpful. Tom felt the same way.”
The treatment goal of hospice is symptom management, comfort care and pain control. Choosing hospice care doesn’t mean one is giving up on life, they are deciding to focus on living.
“The role of the hospice care team is to assist in meeting the patient and family needs for physical care, emotional care and spiritual care,” says Erik Barnhart, a medical social worker for OSF HealthCare. “Our team sees the opportunity to serve as a calling in providing the greatest care and love within our community of caregivers.”
The LaFaves appreciated the little things that OSF Hospice did for the entire family. Barnhart stopped by with flowers and a card for the couple’s anniversary. A card was delivered for Tom’s birthday. They found Tom a portable oxygen tank so he could travel to see his son retire from the Army.
“OSF Hospice was so supportive of us,” says JoEllen. “They were on top of everything from walkers to prescriptions. They know what you need before you do. I don’t know how families do it without that kind of help.”
Tom died July 30, 2022. But his memory lives on with those who knew and cared for him.
“It was a privilege to work with Tom and his family after his passing,” says Barnhart. “We continue to check in with JoEllen to make sure she has everything she needs.”
The LaFaves were married 56 years. JoEllen says it has taken time adjusting to life without her partner by her side.
“You have to learn to live in a new way,” she says. “For more than 50 years he treated me like a queen. I feel good because I was able to take care of him until the end; I loved taking care of him. That’s what got me through it.”
To learn more about Hospice services and support, click here.