Looking forward, one day at a time

by Sonja J. Keith
Mike Kemp photos

Conway schoolteacher Vickie Bailey borrows the title from a series of popular children’s books in describing the cancer journey she and her husband shared as “a series of unfortunate events.”

Growing up in Fort Smith, Vickie earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Central Arkansas. John also attended UCA on a tennis scholarship. The two met at UCA and wed June 21, 1980. John and Vickie made Conway their home in 1989.

John worked for more than 27 years for Wilson Sporting Goods. Vickie was a teacher for 28 years, 25 with the Conway School District. She was the gifted and talented specialist, teaching Pre-AP classes in literacy at Carl Stuart Middle School before her illness.

Vickie and John had two children, Andrea Bailey Fournier and Laura Bailey Rettberg, and three granddaughters.

John’s health issues began suddenly in the spring of 2015. On Easter Sunday, he had severe pain in his leg from a blood clot, which led to the diagnosis of Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. “There was no indication that he was not healthy,” Vickie said, adding there is no family history of the disease. “It was new information so we just took one long breath, let it out and then we started asking questions.”

The Baileys sought treatment at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston in May of that year. The chemotherapy was successful in stalling the progression of John’s disease, allowing the couple to return to Conway in the middle of June. John returned to Houston every two weeks as treatment continued.  

“Until August, we felt like he had a chance to prolong his life by staying with MD Anderson,” Vickie said. “He never gave up hope.”

In July, Vickie was diagnosed with colon cancer and began her own battle. With a family history of the disease, Vickie knew annual screenings were important. She was surprised by the diagnosis. “I anticipated at some point being diagnosed with colon cancer but just did not think it would be now. It was the wrong time.”

Vickie recognized that if colon cancer is caught early enough, which hers was, that outcomes are favorable. “This journey has been a series of unfortunate events. It was just unfortunate that I had cancer at the same time my husband did.”

Vickie and John discussed her diagnosis and treatment options, deciding that she would go ahead with surgery in August so she could recover and return to caring for him. At the time, he was stable. “I saw him before surgery and never saw him again,” Vickie said.

There were complications during Vickie’s surgery, which led to three additional surgeries in August, time in ICU and ultimately a 106-day hospital stay.

John’s condition’s also became critical and he passed away on Aug. 25 at age 57.

At the time of John’s death, Vickie was in a coma. “That was the toughest time for Andrea and Laura,” Vickie said. “They lost their father and were about to lose their mother.”

With both parents critically ill, the couple’s daughters made personal sacrifices as they stepped up to provide for their care. “I think this story is about two strong women. They certainly had to take on a lot of responsibility.”

Andrea, also a teacher in the Conway School District, took a leave of absence to care for her mother, staying at the hospital with her as much as possible. Laura, a dental hygienist who lives in Chicago with husband Jarad, was caring for their 5-month-old Quinn but returned to Conway as often as she could. In addition to caring for John and Vickie, the sisters became responsible for all household responsibilities, as well as their parents’ affairs. “They really did become the parents.”

Vickie continued her battle. For two months, she was only allowed to have ice chips as her body healed. She recalls having a dream about an “ice cube pie” and being allowed to have all the ice cubes she could eat.

It has been most difficult for Vickie to adjust to all the changes in her life. “It’s never been in me to stop fighting, especially when I had an army of warriors fighting for my survival and healing,” she said.

Vickie credits her family and friends, as well as her faith and foundation, built as a young child by her parents, in seeing her through the crisis. “Because I have a strong foundation, I never wavered and never sank.”

A talented gardener, Vickie points out that caring for the soil provides the foundation that gives plants every chance to grow. “My foundation was tested under enormous pressure at that time . . . If you don’t have determination and a strong foundation, then you are going to fail or you will sink.”

Looking back, Vickie is appreciative of everyone who offered a helping hand. She said someone was at the hospital with her every day during the 106 days. “My Sunday School class provided meals for Andrea and Justin and consistently stayed with me during my hospital stay,” she said. “It’s impossible to thank everyone. It truly was an army of warriors.”

Among those offering help has been the “Fanny Friends Forever (FFF),” a group of 13 ladies from a Bible Study. Their name comes from the Bob Dylan song, “Take a Load Off Fanny,” which Vickie kept thinking of as she and John faced the double diagnosis. She shared the song with the group of ladies who adopted the name.

“Each one of them came up and stayed repeatedly in the hospital,” she said, adding that they surprised her one night. They entered her room singing the “Fanny song” with plastic champagne glasses and apple juice when she came off the ice chip-only regimen. “We all toasted to my healing.”

Vickie has also found support among her “Carl Stuart Middle School Family,” who sent funny videos they made that provided some normalcy to the hospital stay. They also provided meals for Andrea and her family (husband Justin and children Bailey and Harlee) while Vickie remained hospitalized. She also has high praise for the Conway School District and its administration. She is appreciative of the support that she and Andrea have received.

Describing her situation as a roller coaster ride, Vickie said she was scheduled to be dismissed from the hospital on three different times but developed complications that prolonged her stay.

When she finally was ready to go home just before Thanksgiving, it was discovered that an upstairs water heater in the house had flooded the downstairs. The FFF and John’s friends went into action, preparing the home for Vickie’s arrival. “When I walked into the house, all of my furniture was in one corner. There was a 10-foot hole in the ceiling and there were 10 to 12 fans in the house.”

But it didn’t matter. Accustomed to setbacks, the family shrugged their shoulders and moved forward. “Justin went above and beyond taking care of the flood damage while caring for his little girls.”

Now in retirement, Vickie continues to heal. Her focus is on the goals she wrote down while in the hospital. While many are personal, some are things she has found interesting, like learning a magic trick.

Vickie kept a journal of her experiences and hopes to write a book that will encourage others. She has already selected the title — “Ice Cube Pie.” Her advice to others facing serious health issues is simple. “I would encourage others to always look forward and take it one day at a time. Don’t ever look back.”