For Tammy Sauve, 53, of Guilford, Vermont, the last few years have been a test of strength, courage, and faith. Diagnosed in 2003 with breast cancer, Sauve underwent a lumpectomy and then radiation and chemotherapy. She recovered from the procedure and went on with her life as a mother, wife, and paraeducator for special needs students at Guilford Elementary School.
Years later, in 2008, Sauve said she started having trouble breathing. “I just could not get air,” she said. “I thought I had asthma.”
In fact, the diagnosis was much more serious. Sauve was told that she had cardio myopathy – heart disease brought on by the cancer treatments she had had earlier. Her doctor told her that most people with her condition did not live more than five years.
“I did a lot of crying and felt a lot of anger,” she said. “You know, you think you beat cancer, and then something like this happens.” Now, she said, she felt the clock ticking away the time she had left to live.
Over the next few years, Sauve said she went on with her life as normally as possible. She continued to work, despite her doctors’ concerns. “I loved my job….my kids,” she said. “The doctors would say to me, ‘Tammy I don’t think you know how sick you really are.’ I thought, well, I just get tired sometimes. It’s not that bad.”
When chest pains became unbearable one evening, Sauve was taken to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., where an angioplasty revealed one of her arteries was 85 percent blocked. Doctors inserted a stent in the artery and sent Sauve to the recovery room. For the next several hours, she experienced clotting and had three more stents put in. She also suffered a heart attack. After four days in the hospital, she went home to recover.
About a year later, she again was taken to DHMC, where doctors discovered that scar tissue had built up on the stents. Sauve went into cardiac arrest. She aspirated and developed pneumonia. When she awoke from a drug-induced coma 11 days later, she was totally blind. It would be two years before she fully regained her sight.
Doctors implanted a defribrillator to regulate Sauve’s heartbeat, which she said did help her feel better. But she was now homebound. “I couldn’t work or drive, so I sat at home and tried to get stronger. A couple of times a month, I’d wind up back at the hospital. I’d have episodes when I could not get air.”
Facing the Fear
“I was very angry and very afraid,” Sauve said. “I was in a situation where I could die in five minutes, an hour, a week, a month. And I had to live with it.”
She remembered feeling overwhelmed at the beginning. “I really struggled with the fear. I was afraid to make plans. I was afraid to have another episode where I couldn’t breathe. But I was most afraid of what my last few hours would be like.”
In 2012, Sauve became a patient of VNH Hospice care. In addition to visits from hospice nurses and other caregivers, she began meeting with Medical Social Worker Megan Hawthorne to talk about her anger and her fears. “Megan has been wonderful. She worked with me to go through one fear at a time,” she said.
Sauve realized she had a decision to make. “I had to decide not to live in fear that I could die at any time. I had to decide to just live until I don’t live anymore. After that, I felt much better. I wasn’t as afraid as I had been.”
She said Hawthorne helped her most with facing her worst fear: “Because of working with Megan, I was able to let go of the fear of what those last moments would be like. That was really weighing on me.”
Sauve said she has gotten stronger over the last two years. She even was able to take a three-day train ride to California to visit her son for seven weeks. “VNH Hospice has given me so much. I know this care has extended my life. I look at each day as a gift because I’m not supposed to be alive.”
A New Hope
And, as she’s felt better, Sauve has felt the need to help others who might benefit from her experience. “I thought, if someone else is scared or needs to talk to someone who is still facing death, they could call me.” In May 2014, she was invited to share her story with a group of hospice volunteers in Brattleboro, Vermont. “It was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” she said. “I felt a connection with this group – these are people who want to do good, just like me.” She hopes to become a hospice volunteer herself soon.
“Tammy is not happy unless she is helping others – this is why her life-limiting illness has been such a struggle,” Hawthorne said. “She has realized that there is a need for open expression about the dying process from someone who is going through it. We are all benefitting from Tammy’s unique gifts of courage, curiosity and compassion, for herself and others.”
Sauve said she is taking it one day at a time, and she credits her VNH caregivers with helping her feel stronger than she has. “VNH Hospice is a wonderful gift. The most precious thing is time – minutes, really – and they are helping people have more of it,” she said.
“It’s really all about the minutes. They gave me minutes. And I thank them for that.”