EDITOR’S NOTE: The Reindeer Gang is an annual holiday feature that identifies individuals and families with needs. Donations to the Mitcham family can be made through Project Giving, P.O. Box 7996, Warner Robins, GA 31095 (478-224-4673) or Ryan’s Hope Fund (Kimberly Ryan Mitcham) at Exchange Bank in Milledgeville.
MILLEDGEVILLE -- There should be a law, written or unwritten, that a person should never have to endure more surgeries than they have candles on their birthday cake.
Kimberly Ryan Mitcham has already broken that rule, several times over. She is a 35-year-old mother with four children, and has had 41 surgeries for her rare form of cancer.
She is a registered nurse, so the world of medicine, operating rooms, tubes and monitors is nothing new to her.
Familiarity doesn’t make it any easier.
With years of accumulated medical expenses, her family has struggled to make ends meet.
Mitcham has a job at Oconee Regional Medical Center in Milledgeville. Her husband, Shaun, works at Washington State Prison in Davisboro.
There is always too much month at the end of the money. This past spring, she filled out a financial assistance application with Project Giving in Warner Robins, a local nonprofit, founded by Lance and Toni Slade, that provides support to families dealing with a chronic illness.
“The bills keep coming and coming,” Mitcham said. “I don’t answer the phone sometimes when I think it might be a debt collector.”
She and Shaun grew up in Milledgeville and were high school sweethearts. They married in 1998. They have four children: Austin, 16, Brittany, 14, Hailey, 12, and Evan, 7.
Mitcham had been working in labor and delivery at Medical Center, Navicent Health, in Macon when she decided to return to school and study to become a registered nurse. She was accepted into the nursing program at Georgia College in her hometown.
She began having difficulty breathing and noticed a lump on her neck. It didn’t help that she had a medical textbook, since she began self-diagnosing everything it could and could not be.
“I just had this feeling something was not right,” she said.
Nine years ago this month, she was told she had thyroid cancer.
“I didn’t want the cancer to keep me from finishing nursing school, so I decided to stick with it,” Mitcham said. “I was afraid if I got out of the program, I might have a hard time getting back in.”
She suffered from facial pains and nose bleeds. She was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer that occurs in the neck, head and salivary glands.
“It’s a one-in-a-million kind of cancer,” Mitcham said. “The doctor told me not to read up on it because there was so much negativity.”
Because she was 24 weeks pregnant with her fourth child, she faced difficult decisions. She could opt to deliver her baby early, which would mean possible health risks for the child. She could wait to undergo surgery after her pregnancy, but delaying treatments for several months might endanger her, since it was an aggressive form of cancer.
She opted to have the cancer surgery while pregnant and gave birth on July 16, 2007.
“Actually, being pregnant saved my life because of the increased hormones and blood supply,” she said. “We tell Evan all the time how he saved my life. That’s why we named him Evan, which means ‘God is good.’”
She has tried to remain brave in the wake of multiple surgeries and facial reconstruction. She recently had to have her left eye removed.
“It has been stressful on all of us,” Shaun said. “You don’t always see it, but it’s there. It has been pretty hard on our children. They have had to grow up fast and do a lot of things to help her when I’m not here.”
The family is living in her mother’s old house and, according to Mitcham, “drowning in medical bills” despite having health insurance.
“I have to tell the kids we don’t have money to do all the things they want,” she said. “We don’t take vacations. A vacation to us is going to see an aunt in Lawrenceville or a cousin in Columbus. We are doing the best we can, but we’ve had to make sacrifices.”