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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA

 

FLOCKS OF PENGUINS: LIVE AT THE CHEMO LOUNGE

by KATHLEENCOLEMAN

 

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(left to right): David Evans, Joe Ford, Ralph Thumas

We've all heard the platitudes: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." And so on, and so on.

It would take a gut of steel to stomach this advice from someone else - especially if you happened to be undergoing chemotherapy at the moment. It would take a near-saint to give himself this advice - especially if he was the one undergoing chemotherapy at the moment.

Ralph Thumas heard his heart speak one day in 1998, after a diagnosis of colon cancer. Perhaps it didn't utter simplistic feel good-isms. But it did say, "Do something."

So he did. Sitting in a chair with a chemo-drip in his arm at the Kentuckiana Cancer Institute, he tried working. A grant-writer by profession, he sat with his laptop open, and clacked away at the keys. But the combination of the poison that is the chemotherapy cocktail and the stress-poison that work can bring wasn't the activity mix his heart had in mind.

No, his heart hinted at music. And laughter. Lightness. And connections.

He asked his physician, Dr. Renato LaRocca - who is also the director of the Kentuckiana Cancer Institute - if he could bring his guitar to the clinic and play while he was getting chemo. The doctor agreed, as long as no other patients objected.

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(L-R)Ralph Thumas, Joe Ford, David Evans

"Ralph had no fear of expressing himself," LaRocca said. "He broached the idea to pass the time. Then he strummed three chords, and everyone gravitated toward him." Soon after, Thumas asked musician friends Joe Ford and David Evans to jam with him for two or three hours each Thursday morning during treatments. And The Chemo Lounge was born, sometimes drawing as many musicians each Thursday as it did patients.

LaRocca said cancer patients face many fears: drugs that make them sick; the potential of finality; anxiety about the unknown. But when Thumas and his friends showed up with their music, "It made for a very collegial flow of energy," LaRocca said. "In a simple, deep way it brought happiness to the environment. I really feel they were happy, and opened up."

Thumas, said Ford and Evans, was always open to life. Said Ford, "Ralph never met a stranger, ever. He could drive you insane - cosmic insane! He was a kite flying, grinning idiot!" Evans puts it this way: "Ralph was always available, always looking to help other people. I think of Ralph and I think of a heart with a great big smile on it."

That smile led him through dark times. Surgery in 1998 did not help stem his colon cancer, yet despite his own fear and pain, Thumas seemed compelled to find meaning in the disease's wake, to leave something of worth behind for his wife and three sons before his death in September, 1999.

"He did what he could to reach in there beyond the dark spots even though he had it all around him," said Evans. "He didn't see gloom, he saw opportunity."

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The band Zen Penguin shortly before Thumas' illness

Opportunity to continue to write songs and lay down recording tracks, lovingly and painstakingly, over the course of several months. Opportunity to give something back to his fellow cancer warriors. Opportunity to make things right with God and his loved ones.

"He was an awesome role model on how to serve in spite of your own condition," Evans said. "I often asked myself, `OK, why I am I supposed to learn this?' Somehow I knew I could expect to be blessed by watching a heart in action."

Someone else was moved by this heart in action: LaRocca. So moved, in fact, that when he learned Thumas was penning songs that touched the hearts of people searching for meaning through their pain, he offered to finance the recording project.

"He shelled out almost ten grand on this project," said Ford. "This is the first time I ever heard of a doctor paying for my treatment." The resulting effort, Live at the Chemo Lounge benefits cancer research and provides funds for those who cannot afford to finance cancer treatment or even the travel and expense often associated with it. One hundred percent of the proceeds from sales of the CD go to the Kentucky Cancer Research Foundation.

"Doc is not just a medical doctor, Renato is a healer,'' said Ford. "He treats every aspect of the human being.'' In fact, when Ford's significant other "Bug'' Uhde was at the end-stages of her cancer battle, LaRocca urged her to use her time wisely.

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"Bug" Uhde

"He said, `I can poison you some more, but there is no cure for this,' '' Ford recalled. "He told her, `If I were you, I would find a good holistic healer and go enjoy what time you have left.' ''

By this time, she and Ford had moved into her parents' home. His experience with watching cancer ravage his loved one left him forever changed.

"They suffer so,'' he said. "I never thought I would pray for somebody to die, but she was starving to death, she looked like a victim of the Holocaust. She couldn't eat, she was regurgitating feces, screaming in pain."

"She called me one day, and said, `I look into your eyes and I can't let go. I need you to pack up your stuff (and go),' '' Ford recalled. He did, and almost immediately, his beloved Bug died.

"You have to enjoy life now, this is not a rehearsal,'' said Ford. "Your world can change in a nanosecond. Don't take anything for granted, it's all a gift that can be gone in a heartbeat.''

Indeed, one of Ralph's songs on the CD, Clarity, seems to speak to the thought that everything can turn upside down, so why not have your life right side up?

You and I, we know what love is for But silly things I want can bar the door And still in moments sacred, growing longer The light that shows the way keeps getting stronger

Oh, feeling as I do I feel such love for You I see Your clarity coming through Clarity, ah clarity

It's been a long hard ride the road we've traveled The gnarled knobs we've weaved to be unraveled Awakening, the sleeper's greatest longing For wisdom, strength and peace to you belonging

A secret in my heart was always hidden Running from the love that's who I am As if there's something else to make us happy There's you and I, the mystery and the plan 1999 Ralph E. Thumas

When Evans reflects on what Thumas gave of himself to the other cancer patients, and to the climate of the Chemo Lounge, it humbles him.

"It was one thing to be a part of that scene with no strangers, laughter, and joyous interaction, but just on the parameters there were all these little angels in doctor and nurse's suits,'' he said. "They would stand there with their mouths open and a tear in their eye. It told me their hearts were there and they were doing the right thing.''

And one other gift remains at the forefront of Evans' mind.

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The Flock of Penguins performing at the Homefront Radio Show &
benefit for the Kentucky Cancer Research Foundation

"We are not great in who we are but in what a great opportunity we have to be on the same level and connect with each other,'' he said. "It has taken me a lifetime to get to this, but I still wake up human every day, and I remember that service is a gift from God, whether or not we can get out of ourselves to realize the unexpected prize we get if we can get out of ourselves."

``There is an incredible amount of power in what you believe.''

To order a ``Live at the Chemo Lounge'' CD, click on www.flockofpenguins.com

 

 

Kathleen_Gilligan.jpg (30356 bytes)Kathleen Coleman is the manager of Promotion for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. A true lover of words, she has worked at several Northwest newspapers as a reporter, columnist and editor. She shares her home with husband Dan, and four dog-like cats: Blossom, Lily, Kung Pao and Angelo. Contact her at kathleenc@spokesman.com

 

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