Being Invisible Girls

What would you do if you were seated on a crowded subway and saw a little girl falling asleep standing up?

“I think: someone needs to hold that little girl because she’s sleepy.  And all of a sudden the little girl looks right at me.  So  I hold my hands out and she climbed on my lab and she fell asleep,” Sarah Thebarge remembers.

That one action changed Sarah’s life.  “There are so many people in this world who feel lost, broken and rejected.  And so if I can do anything, even the smallest thing, to make someone not feel that way, I’ll do it,” she says.

Who is Sarah Thebarge?

sarahthebarge640She’s a writer, physician assistant, and graduate of Yale who, at age 27, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  “I was doing laundry and I put all of my white clothes in the wash…  I was just wearing a white t-shirt….All of the sudden if felt like a raindrop had fallen from the ceiling.  And I wondered if something was leaking up there.  I looked up at the ceiling and then down at my shirt and there was blood on my shirt.  I went to the bathroom and lifted up my shirt and sure enough it was bleeding…Only masses cause blood to come out and I knew I had cancer.”

Only about 1000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer before they are 30 and their cancer is often very aggressive.

Sarah’s story turns grim as her diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ, which Mayo Clinic says is “the earliest form of breast cancer,” returns as invasive cancer, a year after a bilateral mastectomy. And then it recurs twice:  once ,during chemotherapy.

During this period of time, Sarah’s boyfriend broke off their relationship; she had to drop out of her second masters program (this one at Columbia); a friend died of cancer; and, a truck hit her car. “EVERYTHING went wrong during chemo.”  Sarah got sepsis and nearly died.

A small town girl from a small town near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Sarah had no family history of cancer.  Her father is a fundamentalist evangelical Baptist minister and her mother a homemaker.  “I …had to wear dresses to my ankles, couldn’t cut my hair, no woman in my family had ever gone to college.”

She describes her growing up this way. “I was raised in a pretty conservative home. My parents tried to balance…love with toughness.  As a little girl, I was really afraid… I was afraid that God was just waiting for you to mess up and then God would smite you. I was very focused on the rules and my impression of God was, if you kept all the rules you were on God’s good side and good things would happen and if you broke the rules, even the smallest infraction, then God was going to punish.”

But Sarah overcame her childhood to be the first woman in her family to attend college and graduate school at not one but two Ivy League Schools.   Cancer stopped her.  So, after the turmoil of treatment in Connecticut, she decided to sell all her possessions and buy a one-way ticket to Portland, Oregon.

She’d been in Portland almost a year, “I was still pretty broken,” she relates; when she opened her arms to a three year old girl on the Max.book_launch_slide  “It was rush hour I was sitting on the Max reading and this Somali woman gets on the train with 2 little girls.  And the train is really crowded…mom finds a seat and she has a chair for the 4 year old. The 3 year old doesn’t have a seat and this little girl was trying to sleep. Standing between her mom’s legs.”

While holding the three year old, Sarah struck up a conversation with her mom.  Before getting off the train, Sarah learned where they lived.  Fortuitously, before getting off the train the three year old put a pair of dice in Sarah’s hand.  “I went to their apartment to return the dice because I didn’t want this little girl’s first memory of America to be of someone who had tricked her out of giving up her only game.”   She entered their apartment to find mom and five little girls eating moldy bread dipped in ketchup.

“When I went in I realized how they were living.  Which is this totally dark apartment, no furniture, they didn’t have dishes, toothbrushes, nothing.  They just had the clothes on their back. The most dire thing was that they had run out of food…The mother was dumpster diving behind the Safeway giving her girls anything she could find to eat.”

Part of their difficulty came from illiteracy. “They’d gotten food stamps. But mom didn’t know how to use an oven.  So she spent all the food stamps on supplies to make Somali cakes (like cornbread). She can’t read, so she thought the word “broil” on the oven meant “on”  She put all the cakes in the oven to bake them, but it was on broil, so all their food scorched in a few seconds.  And there was a month before they got new food stamps. So she ended up dumpster diving.”

Sarah pieced together their story.  How mom and dad had fled Somalia’s genocide, how dad had abused mom and then left the family in Portland without money.  How mom had no job skills, didn’t know the language and had no support to help her raise five little girls. “She looked the way I’d felt when I first got to Portland…tired, scared, sad…  I thought… if it was the other way around…if I were dropped into Somalia under those circumstances…And I decided if someone found me in Somalia like that, I’d want them to HELP ME. So that’s what I did.”  She bought them necessities like pajamas, toiletries, food, clothing and her church chipped in furniture and dishes.

The “Invisible Girls” and Sarah are family now but it wasn’t an easy story.  Dealing with their first winter was just one more “new” situation they faced together.  Sarah describes one of these experiences this way,  “The first time I turned on their heat, the invisible girls ran around screaming that I’d set their house on fire!  They didn’t need heat in Somalia. So the only explanation for why hot air was coming from behind a wall was that there was a fire. And they knew that I was the one who’d started it!”

The book The Invisible Girls, published in April, details Sarah’s experiences as a cancer patient intertwined with meeting and connecting with this amazing Somali family.  The proceeds from the book are going into a college fund for The Invisible Girls.  Sarah recommends this book with, “I think it is an important read for cancer patients — to see that there’s life beyond the misery of treatment.  To see that it matters to the world that you try to survive (if that’s God’s will for you).”   Sounds like a book for everyone, doesn’t it?

The content of this blog post comes from the #HCHLITSS transcript from the Hashtag Project September 26, 2013 and from personal transcription of a radio interview on OPB conducted by Allison Frost on June 19, 2013.

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