Paula Howard tells the secret of being alive

Thursday, August 13, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I wish I were good enough -- skilled enough -- to make you feel what it was like in that room. Oh, it was just a hospital room. You know what they're like these days. Soft colors, faux wood, flowers, Mylar balloons, stuffed toys, cards.

The difference was the woman.

Her face, bright as a new penny, was topped by a brave nimbus of wispy light hair. Not nearly enough to cover her scalp, but it's all that survived 100 chemotherapy treatments. Her eyebrows, another casualty, are penciled softly over deep blue eyes. She is wearing silky flowered pajamas and a smile framed by carefully applied pink lipstick.

Paula Howard is celebrating. Unlike the wood, the celebration is not faux. This woman is sincerely, positively, amazingly happy. No wonder. Just when she was given a death sentence, she discovered life.

Determined smile

"My wife, Paula," dentist Bill Howard wrote in a letter to me, "was first diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before Christmas, 1989. Following surgery in January of 1990, the pathology report was ominous. All eight lymph nodes came back positive. We had about a year off before the first metastasis was detected on a bone scan in October of 1991.

"She has been in treatment ever since."

Ever since? My God. Where does that smile come from?

"I used to go through life as fast as I could, putting away dishes while I was talking on the phone," Paula says. "Rushing. Now I take note of everything. I listen, really listen to the sounds around me. See things. Feel things. I decided to make each day count. Every one."

She has traveled -- Paris, Turkey. She saw her son graduate from college. "And I never thought I'd be lucky enough to see him through high school." Gardening. She always liked gardening. So, for the first time in her 50-plus years, she got competitive about it. She entered the Ault Park flower show two years ago. And won a blue ribbon and trophy.

Since 1991, she has been coming to University Hospital from her home in Clermont County every three or four weeks. The cancer is always there. The chemo doesn't cure it but suppresses it. She cannot go more than four weeks or it will rage out of control.

After her treatments, according to Bill, comes "hanging on through the following week to 10 days of falling white cell counts, feeling tired and feverish, gastrointestinal upset and much more. Then, just as she is beginning to feel normal, it's time to go back to the hospital for another round."

He tells me this.

She tells me about spending Christmas in France and shopping for a wig. "I never have a bad hair day anymore," she says, laughing. The wig is for work in the bridal registry at McAlpin's in Kenwood. "I don't ever want the way I look to be a barrier."

Walking on water

Her co-workers cover for her during the treatments. This life that she has claimed for herself is not a solitary achievement. She is buoyed by friends, her husband and their son, Trey. Her doctor, oncologist Elyse Lower, "walks on water."

Then, of course, there is faith. "I don't think God micromanages, but there is a bigger plan. Maybe God wanted a successful survivor, to give hope to others. I can honestly say that I have never been happier. There were times in my life when I felt buried alive. But not now." Posted in her room is a quote from Marcel Proust: "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes."

I borrowed Paula Howard's eyes for just a moment, seeing a world of squandered time. And in that room, laughing with the woman sprawled across a starched expanse of hospital bed, it was easy to forget her struggle against death. Because she does so much living in between. Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at