Thorpe's Peggy Sue O'Donnell to receive 'Courage Award'
RON GOWER/TIMES NEWS Peggy Sue O'Donnell of Jim Thorpe with her dog, Gonzo. O'Donnell will receive a "Courage Award" from the Carbon-Schuylkill Chapter of the American Cancer Society at about 7:15 p.m. Sunday during the annual ACS Telethon, which will air on Blue Ridge Communications TV 13. The Telethon will be held from noon to midnight on Saturday and Sunday.
Practically everybody in Jim Thorpe knows Margaret Susan O'Donnell. She can't walk down the street or through the aisles of the grocery store without people stopping to talk with her.
They know her, though, as "Peggy Sue," the UPS driver who has been delivering packages to homes in the community for the past 28 years.
Until last June, she never missed a day of work for illness.
They know her as a woman who is always positive; who says hello to anybody even strangers and who will lend a hand to anybody in need.
The Jim Thorpe resident was involved in many community events, too, and was an outstanding athlete at Marian Catholic High School in her youth.
Last June, she was diagnosed with head and neck cancer, which was "Stage 4A," which means it was progressed and the survival rate is not good.
She underwent surgery on June 29, had rigorous treatment, and is still recuperating. Still, she remains her upbeat, perky self when greeting a visitor.
It's her positive attitude that has earned her a "Courage Award" from the Carbon-Schuylkill Chapter of the American Cancer Society.
The award will be presented during the annual ACS Telethon at about 7:15 p.m. Sunday. The telethon, which is noon to midnight on Saturday and Sunday from Penn's Peak in Jim Thorpe, airs live on Blue Ridge Communications TV-13.
O'Donnell is one of two recipients of the Courage Award. The other is Nan Cressley of Franklin Township.
Until her surgery for cancer, O'Donnell had been a patient in a hospital only once: To give birth.
She said her problem began with a sore throat and post nasal drip.
"I had no idea it was a tumor," she said. "It didn't hurt. I had no pain."
Doctors couldn't tell her where the cancer originated, but it made its way to her lymph nodes.
She praised her physician, Dr. Andrew Wakstein, who has offices in Palmerton and Allentown, with his aggressiveness and knowledge for saving her life.
Dr. Wakstein removed the tumor, then O'Donnell followed up with 35 radiation treatments over seven weeks.
She also had simultaneous chemotherapy sessions every three weeks. Her second chemo session put her back in the hospital due to exhaustion.
Placed into her was a port for the chemo and a feeding tube. When the feeding tube was taken out, she had to learn to swallow again.
"Your swallowing mechanisms get so lazy you have to learn to eat all over again," she said, adding, "I souped myself to death."
The radiation took away all her saliva. When the saliva returned, it was so plentiful she stuffed tissues in her mouth. The saliva again stopped and the dry mouth returned.
"Cancer is such a sneaky illness," O'Donnell said. "You don't know you have anything wrong."
"It's devastating," said her roommate Shari Beers. "You're not prepared."
O'Donnell admits that when she had her sore throat, she felt a lump.
"It wasn't protruding," she said. "I thought it was swollen glands. You don't want to think the worst."
Even a CT scan didn't detect the cancer initially.
"I thought maybe I had strep throat," she said.
She went to a medical center, where blood work and a chest X-ray occurred. She was then referred to an ear, nose, and throat doctor. She chose Dr. Wakstein.
O'Donnell is optimistic that she has overcome the bout with cancer. She's even talking about going back to work, although admits that at the present time she isn't strong enough to handle the lifting demands of the UPS job.
Besides a roommate, she has a black lab, Gonzo, which she rescued from a shelter in Arkansas.
She also has a daughter, Keri, wife of Jeremy LaClair of Green Brook, N.J., and an 18-month-old grandson, Cadden.
O'Donnell said the worst part of her illness is taking things easy.
"I was used to getting up every day. It was go, go, go."
One piece of advice O'Donnell got, which she feels is important for cancer victims, is "Don't be afraid to ask questions. When you have an illness, there is no such thing as a stupid question."
She added, "You can't let it get to you. I've seen people with a very defeatist attitude. You can't sit and think, 'Why me?'
"Don't dwell that you have this illness that could kill you. You can die in a car. You have to live every day and be the happiest you can," she said.
She remarked, "I'm Roman Catholic and I believe when He's ready for me, He's going to take me."
O'Donnell noted that she is the second member of her family to have this type of cancer.
"My cousin had it and she was only 51. She let it go. She died from it."
As if battling cancer wasn't bad enough, she noted that medical billing errors caused her more grief. In fact, in the interview, the talk about insurance and billing was the only negativity expressed by O'Donnell.
"For my first four weeks, the bill was $177,000," she said. She was told she owed $140,000 of that amount, and still had three more treatments scheduled.
"What we had to go through with the insurance company," she said, noting she couldn't talk at the time.
"People need an advocate. It is terrible there is nothing in place. We really need an advocate."