Jeanette King: Real Life Wonder WomanLeslie Gudel
Jeanette King had a big personality, matched only by her tremendous smile. She wore that smile with ease, sharing it regularly. From her childhood days in Ridley Park, PA, Jeanette lived big and loved big. “She was outgoing and she didn’t have much of a filter. She told it like it was and if you didn’t like to hear it, that was your problem”, Jeanette’s husband, Bobby King, said with a laugh.
Jeanette could outpace anyone. She was deeply involved in her kid’s numerous school activities, was part of a scrapbooking club, loved camping and cooking out with family and friends and spent numerous hours volunteering. Nothing could slow her down. Her friends referred to her as Wonder Woman, the superhero known for possessing superior combat skills, fighting for justice, love, peace and equality.
Jeanette began fighting for justice shortly after graduating from Drexel University in 1993. She followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a Police Officer for the Abington Township Police Department. She then went on to become a school bus driver for Upper Moreland School District. That led to a job as a union rep for her fellow bus drivers. She loved working with people. “Her work ethic was unmatched,” Bobby said.
Life was moving along when Jeanette started experiencing tenderness and swelling in her right breast. Jeanette and Bobby both knew something was wrong. The diagnosis didn’t come quickly, but thanks to the persistence of breast cancer specialist Dr. Donna Angotti, in September 2011, Jeanette learned she had inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form of breast cancer accounting for 1 to 5 percent of all breast cancers diagnosed in the United States, according to the National Cancer Institute. This sort of cancer often develops quickly and spreads aggressively.
Unswayed by the less than stellar prognosis, Jeanette’s first words after her diagnosis were, “What’s next?” The plan of attack was chemotherapy, radiation and a mastectomy. While Jeanette had every reason to feel sorry for herself, Bobby said her behavior and attitude towards life never really changed. Through the fall of 2012, Jeanette endured the seemingly endless treatments while wearing her patented smile. The only thing that bothered her was her missing breast, but rebuilding would have to wait.
Good News, Bad News
In March of 2013, a year and a half after her diagnosis, Jeanette got the all-clear. Exciting news, for sure, but there was plenty of road left to travel. Not only is inflammatory breast cancer aggressive, it’s difficult to detect. There is no lump and often can’t be seen in a mammogram screening. For this reason, Jeanette’s doctors preferred to have a two-year, all-clear before repairing the breast they’d removed. A year and a half later, the cancer was back.
“That was a big kick in the stomach,” said Bobby. But again, Jeanette said, “What’s next?” With internationally renowned breast cancer clinician, Dr. Massimo Cristofanilli, overseeing her care at the Jefferson Breast Care Center, Jeanette was confident in the process and the plan.
To this day, Bobby marvels at the strength, courage and selflessness Jeanette displayed during her treatment, “She never felt sorry for herself. Even going through all that, everything was about everyone else. She stayed involved in the community and tried to stay active. She didn’t want any pity. Never a “woe is me.” She never cracked.
Despite the tough exterior, Bobby knew she was hurting, “she hid the pain.” He recalled a family camping trip to Stony Fork, PA. “I asked her if she really wanted to do it.” She was insistent.
THE END IN SIGHT
In the Fall of 2014, Bobby started to get concerned. Jeanette was dropping weight fast. From September, 2014 to February, 2015, she lost 60 pounds. She had stents put in her kidneys. GI problems led to a colonoscopy. They found a mass. Numerous masses were then found on her liver and one day Bobby noticed one of her eyes was drooping. The cancer had moved to her brain. This was the point they realized there was nothing else they could do. But, Jeanette kept fighting.
“We had a lot of discussions about her not making it. We tried to prepare ourselves for what was going on,” said Bobby. That meant keeping their three kids, Josh, 21, Elizabeth, 16 and Bobby, 14, informed, as well. “We told the kids everything along the way. The kids are so resilient. They helped with everything. It was unbelievable how strong they were.”
By June of 2015 the cancer was taking its toll. Bobby remembers vividly how Jeanette would go for her treatments, “and the labs wouldn’t be good enough to get her treatment. The doctor had said there’s going to come a point when we will stop treating you for your quality of life. It got to the point where they said, ‘We can’t treat you any more’. August 11th we put her in hospice. She wanted to be home.”
Even while in hospice, Jeanette was displaying the same strength she had from the beginning. She and Bobby would go out for lunch and she even helped plan her own funeral, picking out the casket and everything else that went along with it. Even knowing the end was near, she still never complained.
Father Connors, the priest from St. David’s Catholic Church, paid the King’s a visit on Tuesday, August 25th. After spending some time with Jeanette, Bobby asked Father Connors about last rites and the protocol surrounding how and when they’re administered. Father Connors told Bobby not to worry about it yet, that Jeanette appeared to be in pretty good shape.
No sooner did Father Connors say those words than Jeanette took a turn for the worse. She could no longer climb the steps, so Bobby got a hospice bed for the first floor. Bobby went to mass that Saturday and told Father Connors that Jeanette wasn’t doing well. He said he’d come by that night after the evening mass.
By the time Father Connors got to the King’s house, Jeanette was slipping away. Bobby recalled that, with their son, Bobby, also in the room, “Father Connors gave her last rites and she died not 15 seconds later. He sat down in the corner and said, ‘I’ve only ever seen that happen (someone pass immediately after last rites) one time before and that guy was a priest.’ She couldn’t have gone more peacefully.”
August 29, 2015, Jeanette King passed away at her home, “where she wanted to be”, at the age of 43.
CELEBRATING A LIFE, MOURNING THE LOSS
Not that Bobby ever doubted how much his wife was loved, but the outpouring of support after her passing was, “Impressive. It was one of the biggest funerals the funeral home has ever done. St. David’s Catholic Church, where mass was held, holds 550 people and not only were all the seats full, there were people standing everywhere.” Daughter Elizabeth’s entire junior class bussed in for the service and son Bobby’s entire 9th grade football team came out to pay their respects.
As one would expect, it’s been really hard for Bobby since Jeanette died. He misses many things about her, but most of all, “Just her being here. The loneliness is killing me. When the kids first went back to school I broke down. I balled for five hours straight. There was no Jeanette to take care of.”
Then there are the milestones – “October 4th was our Anniversary. That was tough. Thanksgiving was really tough. Jeanette always made little smokies and mushroom cups. The kids made the little smokies this time. I was crying eating turkey dinner, dripping tears into my mashed potatoes. Christmas was her big holiday. I asked the kids what they wanted to do, if they wanted to decorate, because Jeanette always went all out. They pulled everything out and decorated the house.”
ADVICE AND APPRECIATION
Bobby retired from his career as a Pennsylvania State Trooper in January of 2015. He gave nearly 25 years to the Army National Guard and the PA State Police. Being home for the first time allowed him to be with Jeanette every single day for her last eight months. He’s recently spent some time on Facebook reading the “widow boards” and that’s helped give him a deeper sense of gratitude, “I read these stories and I should be dancing a jig.” Asked what advice he’d give others going through a similar journey, “Always look at the blessings you have. I was there every single day her last eight months. I didn’t have to worry about paying bills, didn’t have to worry about anything. That fact alone, that someone else somewhere has it worse than we do, that makes us realize we’re so blessed.”
Bobby also suggests taking it all in while you can. “If there is stuff you want to do as a couple, do it. We had wanted to go to New Orleans and Las Vegas. We never got there. Those are the little things I have regrets about.
Bobby’s mom, Kathy, died in January. She had COPD and was on oxygen full time, but at 69 years old, her death was still unexpected. It’s another big blow to a family that has already had their share. Bobby has questioned his faith along the way and he and his father, Robert, have leaned on each other for support.
Jeanette’s birthday was on January 29. She would have been 44. An old friend who hadn’t heard of Jeanette’s passing, mailed her a birthday card. Bobby made the tough phone call to break the news and thank the woman for caring enough to think about his wife on her birthday. Someone else tied a birthday balloon to the King’s front yard fence.
The kids are doing well, getting good grades in school and actively being teenagers. Bobby said he doesn’t know how single parents do it all. His wife wasn’t the only strong one in the family. He see’s Jeanette’s strength in both their kids and he sees Jeanette in their daughter’s mannerisms, “and the way she moves sometimes.” Bobby is comforted by the fact that his kids are doing well and all things considered, he’s doing well, too.
Trying to be Superman to his Wonder Woman is not easy.