Oregon Observer - 1/1/2015
Giving back, not giving up
Community rallies around local man fighting cancer
Unified Newspaper Group
A new bed, bathroom and deck might seem like lofty wishes on an adult’s Christmas list, but for 59-year-old Bashir Nasserjah, they have become necessities.
The longtime Oregon resident and native of Afghanistan is battling a crippling form of cancer called multiple myeloma. The systemic disease has manifested itself in at least four bone tumors, inflicting excruciating pain while stealing his mobility and energy.
What were once routine tasks like sleeping, bathing and walking have become difficult and painful since his diagnosis in September. In less than three months, Bashir has gone from being completely independent to using a walker and – though he hates it – a wheelchair to get around.
His wife, Renee Frank, has become his full-time caregiver at home. The problem is, the house cannot accommodate Bashir’s changing needs on his family’s limited income.
But before Bashir even reached out for help, friends, businesses and even strangers stepped in to give back to a family that has been prominent in the Oregon area.
To show its support, the community rallied together over the last few months and held a “Labor of Love” benefit for the family at their R&B Acres property in November.
“After learning about the costs that would lean heavily on the family, a few of us met up and started organizing a benefit for the family,” event organizers said. “Thus began an outpouring of support that we never could have imagined.”
Dozens of people have also taken on the role of St. Nick, volunteering their time and resources to make life a little more manageable for his family.
While insurance will cover most of Bashir’s chemotherapy treatments, the funds raised from the benefit are going toward making his home and vehicle more accessible, and to offset costs related to his care. Just in time for the holidays, volunteers finished building a wheelchair ramp attached to a deck on the back of the house.
“(It’s going to) make my life a lot easier,” Bashir said, grateful to those who helped make the project a reality.
Facing a prognosis of about two years to live, Bashir is undergoing chemotherapy treatments in a 9-month-long investigational study through the Mayo Clinic and UW Carbone Cancer Center. But the fact remains: his cancer is inoperable.
“His health has declined exponentially every day, especially since the middle of July. It’s just been a surreal experience,” Renee said. “He’s now getting some physical therapy support, but it’s a long road. At the end of the day, he’s just tired.”
To help ease his discomfort, the family purchased a zero-gravity, adjustable bed that doesn’t put as much pressure on Bashir’s back while lying down at night. Next door, the master bathroom is being renovated to lower sinks and add a hot tub/shower unit featuring a spring-loaded seat that will be easier for him to use.
Renee also wants to get a generator so that if they lose power and the driveway is drifted shut with snow, she can still keep her husband warm and get him the drugs he needs to manage his pain. And, although the family underestimated how much work it needed, some of the money is being used to winterize and repair the family’s 2006 Chevy Tahoe.
However, the most immediate need has been a way to get Bashir in and out of the house for his doctor’s appointments and chemotherapy treatments, which are two days per week for three weeks out of each month. In the past, Renee would have to call around or send a message on social media to enlist the help of strong friends that could carry him up and down the steps.
The family stopped into Home Depot on Verona Road to learn how to build a wheelchair ramp so Bashir could navigate better on his own. Before they knew it, the store donated some of the wood materials and a few employees offered up their help.
Mark Andert, who works with lumber and building materials at Home Depot, was one of five employees who volunteered to help design and construct the ramp. While vacation days are generally used to take a trip or just to relax, some employees decided to work for free on their days off around the holidays to help the cause in a way they knew how.
“Home Depot is all about giving back to the community,” said Andert, one of nearly 20 volunteers from the business that also helped with cleanup efforts from the tornado in Verona this summer.
The Home Depot Foundation gets involved with thousands of projects around the country through community impact grants. Andert said the Verona Road location typically does five to eight projects each year in the community, including building playgrounds for schools and homes for veterans.
The weather wasn’t always on their side in December, so the volunteers were joined by Renee’s father and a few friends of the family the week before Christmas to get the ramp in a usable state before the snow hit. The project took about eight days over the last month to complete.
Since the ramp snakes along the side of the house and onto the yard, Renee also requested the open rectangle in the middle be filled in to create a deck so Bashir can watch the sun set over their farm.
Outpouring of support
Many of these improvements were made possible through the donations received from the benefit. Event organizers noted how freely people opened their wallets and schedules to the family once they heard Bashir’s story.
The varied group of Renee’s friends and acquaintances of the family that volunteered to spearhead the benefit included Amy Garvoille, Becky Groenier, Laura Groenier, Jo Temte, Linda Perry and Kathy Pfaff. They met every Sunday at the Firefly Coffeehouse between Oct. 12 and Nov. 8, the day of the benefit, to collaborate and share their talents – from public relations to decorations.
The benefit gained considerable exposure through social media, as well as more than a thousand fliers distributed throughout the community and posted in nearly every storefront in Oregon. Aside from just offering up their windows, many businesses helped in other ways.
For instance, Postal Connections donated and printed 300 of the fliers for Pizza Hut to distribute with pizza boxes during one of the busiest delivery nights of the year: Halloween.
“We have the big resources and the small-town charm, feel and community, and I love that,” Perry said.
As she was canvassing at businesses, she noted that people were receptive, positive and felt compelled to help.
“It has been that way everywhere,” Perry said. “For me, this has been easy, because these people (Bashir and Renee) have built community, they’ve given.”
Renee has been visible in the Oregon Area School District as a substitute teacher, up on the slopes as a ski instructor and at farmers markets with her produce, which she also donates to the local food pantry. She and Bashir are proud parents to Alexander, in his second year at UW-Madison, and Arianna, a junior at Oregon High School.
When people saw the picture of the couple on the flier, they recognized them as loyal patrons and good-hearted neighbors, co-workers, coaches and friends invested in their community.
“There’s a somberness (in that Bashir) is ill, but there is definitely a positive mental outlook that he’s in an NCI (National Cancer Institute) center, he’s getting the daily care he needs, Renee is able to be there for him,” Perry said. “And I think they are drawing a lot of their strength from what they’re seeing in the community for this event.”
While much of the food served at the benefit was homemade by volunteers, various businesses in Oregon and Madison donated meat and drinks. Four bands also donated their time and talents to play at the benefit.
Despite the chilly night, nearly 200 people attended the benefit and 70 baskets from 36 businesses and individuals went up for silent auction. The Oregon Police Department also helped direct traffic around Locust Grove Road that evening.
“If anyone has ever wondered about the power of a community, all they had to do was take a glance at the event,” the “Labor of Love” benefit fundraising committee said. “There is a saying that, ‘It takes a village.’ Well, this village certainly proved (it) can do amazing things.”
While Renee has been pleasantly surprised by the support, Bashir is overwhelmed. “But in a good way,” she was quick to point out.
“He’s struggling a little bit (with) the fact that non-family members would be so kind and so caring,” Renee said. “But I’m like, ‘No, that’s our town, that’s our home.’”
Culturally, if Bashir had been sick in Afghanistan it would have been his family’s responsibility to take care of him. However, in small-town America, communities often help fill that role, even if it means just checking in with a quick phone call or dropping by with a hot casserole.
Renee quickly explained Bashir’s history as an emigrant from Afghanistan, noting that his year-long plan to escape could be a story on its own.
Born in 1955, Bashir was raised in Kabul, where he later pursued a plant science degree. However, in the 1970s it became very politically unstable in the region.
“In 1979 the Soviets invaded, he saw the writing on the wall and did not want to be a part of that – didn’t want to fight,” she said. As tensions rose during the Soviet War, he fled the country in 1981, first to a refugee camp in Pakistan and then to America.
Bashir was granted political asylum in 1982, and he decided to go back to school and received a computer science degree from Valparaiso University in Indiana. In 1987 he became a United States citizen.
In 1992, he started a friendship with Renee, an Oregon native and fellow plant aficionado, after she returned from studying in Bonn, Germany. The couple married in 1994, and they moved from the far west side of Madison back to Oregon when their son was school aged.
Fast forward about a decade when Bashir was beginning to experience backaches on and off again for several years. Doctors took an MRI two years ago, but the scans were clean at the time. One possible explanation was that it could be a bulging disc.
He tried massage therapy, chiropractic visits and a back brace to find relief, but the pain intensified this summer. An updated MRI this fall revealed cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, multiple myeloma is characterized by malignant plasma cells in bone marrow that grow out of control, produce tumors and dissolve the bone. Due to its complexity, the disease can be difficult to diagnose and treat.
Bashir has already had radiation on his lumbar and is now making frequent trips to Madison for chemotherapy.
He has also been forced to take a step back from work as a software engineer at American Family Insurance. He is still adjusting to his less-active lifestyle, but he is glad he’s been tolerating the chemotherapy well.
“So far, so good,” Bashir said.
Now he and his family are just trying to take one day at a time, grateful for the support and encouragement they have received from the community over the past few months since his cancer diagnosis.
“(Bashir) has always loved (Oregon),” Renee said. “But he didn’t realize how much the little town had become his family in lieu of his Afghan, biological family network.”
Letter to the editor
Click here to read a letter to the editor from the family.