PEOPLE WHO INSPIRE

Lexington woman finds second career in helping others

mlucas@thestate.comMay 12, 2013 

— It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and members of a cancer support group at Lexington Medical Center are gathered around a conference table talking about “chemo brain,” the mental fog patients often have after chemotherapy.

Suddenly one member quips he never had much of a brain to start with.

Everyone, including the cancer support group’s leader Chris Gibson, bursts into laughter.

It’s the kind of thing members say happens often at the meetings.

“I’ve been in here crying and I’ve been in here laughing,” says Jill Revis, who recently finished a round of chemotherapy to treat colon cancer.

The women say they wouldn’t have found each other had it not been for Gibson, a social worker in Lexington Medical’s oncology department who founded the group in 2003.

“Chris is the only reason I started coming to the meetings,” says Kathryn Ward, who has been in remission for more than five years. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t need support. I don’t need support.’ But then I realized, I did need support.”

Gibson started the group, since named “Losing is Not an Option,” after one of her patients had difficulty arranging transportation to one of the Midlands’ other support groups.

“I thought, she can’t be the only one,” she says.

So Gibson set out to form a support group that would meet regularly at the hospital, where patients already came for treatment. Now in its 10th year, the group has met weekly on the basement level of the medical center, providing support and camaraderie to those with cancer.

And while forming the group has certainly been helpful to members, it’s not the first time Gibson has put her mind to creating something worthwhile.

Changing her life’s path

Those who know Gibson say when she gets an idea in her head, she’s not likely to let it go.

“When she sets her mind to something, she’s wonderful and she’s exhausting,” says Gibson’s colleague Deidre Young, laughing.

Young, the medical center’s manager for cancer programs, was one of those who interviewed Gibson for her job as a social worker for the department’s outpatient cancer services area — a position Gibson suggested as an intern at Lexington Medical Center.

Creating a job you now hold may sound odd, but it all started when Gibson, now 65, decided to go back to school at age 50.

“I think USC calls us mature students,” says Young, who had started her own medical career in nursing at age 27.

“Yes, mature,” Gibson says, smiling. “I was a fine wine.”

Earning a college degree and helping people was something Gibson had always wanted to do.

But as a single mother raising two children in a small Missouri town for the first part of her life, it just wasn’t a priority.

“Many times when my kids and I were on our own we had some very bad times,” she says.

As a real estate agent with only a high school diploma, Gibson said she relied on the commissions she made from home sales to make ends meet. But there were still times when the family had “no food, no phone and no electricity.”

“So I know what that’s like,” she says. “I know you have to take care of your environment before anything else that is important.”

But those years of struggle would later provide Gibson with the unique ability to empathize with those around her.

Those years also would steer her toward what would later become her life’s calling.

“I love counseling,” says Gibson. “In fact, the thing I liked most about real estate was listening to people and helping them figure out how to solve their problems.”

Gibson eventually would remarry and move to South Carolina, where husband Louis, a computer programmer, landed a job as a contractor.

With her children now through college and starting careers and families of their own, Gibson was free to pursue her dream. But something was still holding her back.

“I just thought that was selfish of me,” she says. After moving to South Carolina, Gibson would work for one more year in real estate before her husband finally stepped in and gave her the final push she needed.

“He said, ‘You need to do what you’ve always wanted to do. Go back to school. Go work with people,’” she says.

So at an age when most people begin planning for retirement, Gibson enrolled at the University of South Carolina, where she completed her undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in social work.

Creating her job

While working to complete her master’s, Gibson decided to write a research paper on what Lexington Medical Center needed.

“One of my areas was the outpatient area where patients got infusion and chemo,” she says. “I felt like they really needed their own social worker.”

The Lexington Medical Center’s board agreed with her and in 2003 created a new position – one that Gibson, admittedly, had a vested interest in. But Gibson would have to apply and interview for the job like everyone else.

Deirdre Young remembers the opening attracted several candidates with stellar track records. But Young also remembers the incredible recommendation Gibson received from her supervisor at Lexington Medical — a supervisor who never passed along recommendations.

“She said, Chris is amazing and talented and passionate about what she does,” Young recalls. Then she ended her plug with a pronouncement — if hospital management let Gibson go, it would be “the biggest mistake” they ever made.

“I said, well that’s pretty profound,” Young says, but added for Lexington Medical, “Chris was the untried commodity.”

Still, Gibson went on to wow the interview panel made up of hospital management and physicians. In 2003 – five years after changing her life’s trajectory – Chris Gibson walked into Lexington Medical as a social worker and quietly set about the business of helping others.

A kind of fraternity

Along the way, Gibson says she has met some amazing people, whose resilience in the face of an unrelenting disease has been inspiring.

There was Bill Nichols, who came up with the support group’s name. Known for his sense of humor and bigger-than-life personality, Nichols used to say “Losing is Not an Option,” Gibson says.

One day a set of rubber bracelets imprinted with those same words showed up on the group’s conference room table. But no one, including Nichols, knew how they got there.

“It was just one of those magical things,” Gibson says.

And there were many others.

Some, like Nichols, have passed away. Others have entered remission and come back to encourage and support new members like Cathy Pike. Pike likens the group to the biblical story of the man whose friends helped him see Jesus by lowering him through the roof of a crowded room.

“They had true love for their friend,” says Pike. “And that is what this group is.”

It’s a fraternity that no one wants to join, but members are there for each other. They call. They visit. They attend appointments with each other.

Gibson is particularly proud of the group dynamic.

“It’s a living and breathing entity,” she says. “It continues 24 -7, even though the group is one hour a week.”

They even come together to raise funds for those who may be facing their last days but have that one last thing they’d really like to do.

For Nichols it was skydiving. For another, a former boat captain, it was a trip back to Cape Hatteras. Another wanted to take her grandchildren to Disney World.

When Gibson and group members lose someone, it’s tough.

Very tough.

“We have our cry times and we have our joke times and we go on,” she says.

And for those who may be considering a career helping others?

“I think the pat phrase is, ‘It’s never too late,’” Gibson says. “But it has to be deeper than that. It has to be important enough to you that it doesn’t matter where you are in life to do it.”

Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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