RIPLEY - It was just a week ago that Bev Stevens made the trek from Saint Albans, where she has called home since 1990, to Ripley where she graduated high school in 1974. Her name was Bev Mills in those days. She had long, flowing hair that sparkled with each layered tress and the kind of eyes that gleamed like the girl next door. She was after all, an American girl.
It had been a few years since Stevens, 57 had stepped foot in blue and white country. She made the trip alone and visited with friends in the area and then just before dark on that Thursday evening, she took a little drive.
She visited the home she grew up in on Third Avenue. She didn’t leave her car. She made a couple of slow swipes by the aging home and moved on to Walters Street where her late husband and 1972 Ripley High graduate Jimmy Stevens had been born and raised.
She cruised by her high school alma mater and gazed at Ray Swisher Field at Viking Park only to realize that while the campus had endured some changes, Ripley High really seemed to look much the same as she remembered it and she found that comforting and it made her smile, for a moment.
“A flood of teenage memories washed over me. I needed to reconnect if only for a few minutes,” said Stevens.
“I thought of my parents and how hard they worked. My father (Cam) put in long hours at Kaiser Aluminum and my Mother (Anna) worked for John Landfried Insurance,” said Stevens.
While her father has since passed away, her Mother is still vibrant and healthy at 78 and lives on the same neighborhood street.
Her final stop before returning to Kanawha County was a visit to the cemetery in Fairplain where Jimmy was buried in 1990. You see, they were high school sweethearts who married shortly after graduating.
They made their home at Midway Acres where they had two daughters. Jamie came first in 1981 and Sarah in 1985. Jimmy was employed by Volkswagen and spent his working days at the stamping plant in South Charleston while Bev worked as a nurse at Jackson General Hospital from 1979 to 1987.
“I have a lot of good memories from Jackson General Hospital. It was a pleasant place to work with a real connection to the community.”
After being laid off with many other workers from Volkswagen, the family moved to Kissimmee Florida to get a fresh start and a new perspective.
“Florida was a mistake for us. We weren’t happy there. We longed for West Virginia the whole time,” added Stevens.
After a sudden illness claimed Jimmy’s life in 1990, the family packed up and settled in Saint Albans and Stevens took a job with Thomas Memorial Hospital’s Home Health division, where she remains today. She is employed as a Licensed Practical Nurse and McKesson Coordinator.
Page 2 of 3 - In January of this year, Stevens had a routine mammogram and something appeared that justified an ultrasound. Within a month she had a lumpectomy as the results showed a “triple negative” which indicates the most aggressive form of cancer. She was diagnosed on a Thursday and was in surgery on Monday.
“Initially, all I could think about was my grandchildren,” said Stevens.
Laila who is 6 and Lexii the youngest at 3, have a special place in their grandmother’s heart. Stevens is actually raising Laila by herself and knowing how much she was needed contributed to her feelings about the surgery.
“After the initial shock of it all wore off I had to make some decisions. I decided to have a double mastectomy. It was quite a decision to make over a weekend but I am glad that I did it,” she added.
As a nurse, you see similar situations often but it touches home when a nurse becomes a patient.
“I read results like this every day. It always touches me when I see them and I know what the patient has ahead of them. When I heard the word “cancer” come from a doctor’s mouth directed at me, it chilled me to the bone, briefly.”
After three total surgeries in six weeks another decision had to be made.
“I initially had the expanders inserted and I had them removed soon after. While I knew they would make my chest look more natural from society’s stand point, I just realized that I could care less about how people perceived me. My husband is gone, I don’t date and I am just fine with who I am. If I were 30, I am sure I would feel differently and I understand that completely,” said Stevens.
“I only had one moment of second guessing myself. I went to put on a bathing suit over the summer and for a fleeting moment I regretted not having the expanders. That feeling soon passed and I moved along with my day and haven’t thought about it since.”
Soon after her surgeries there was the chemotherapy and the sickness that followed. She only missed a couple of days work through it all.
“My co-workers are like family to me. Two of them even came to bathe me after one of my surgeries. I couldn’t ask for a better staff of people around me. Becky Massey (my boss) gave me all of the freedom to come and go that I could have needed. She was very accommodating and she is a dear friend. My Mother stood by me through everything and helped out with so many things while I was at my worst”
Page 3 of 3 - There were a couple of chemo-related stories that will remain with Stevens forever.
“I remember standing in my yard and the wind was blowing. Chunks of my hair were blowing away with the breeze. I stood there in a haze and watched it fly away. Losing my hair came suddenly. Like that, it was gone.”
A trip to the beach over the summer also yielded a memory she could never forget.
“A young toddler at the beach asked me why I didn’t have hair. I didn’t want her to be afraid of me and I asked the mother if I could explain it to her. After I talked to her and told her the truth she was fine with it and I saw her multiple times after that while enjoying vacation.”
Stevens credits her upbringing with providing her with her strength.
“One thing I know about Ripley is that it is a strong community that fights for each other and gets things done. I still draw strength from that town and I would live there again in a heartbeat. Maybe someday, I will come back. I would like that very much.”
The lady with the thick, healthy hair and wide, inviting smile had advice to offer to anyone facing what is now part of her past but always a part of her present.
“It starts with your physicians. My family doctor (Angela Whitman) and surgeon (Mathew Hofeldt) were so understanding and thoughtful along the way. I would encourage them to educate themselves and talk to as many people as they can that have been through the process. You should know that it is okay to have a bad day and feel sorry for yourself. Surround yourself with people and things that give you strength. Research your doctors and surgeons and trust them. I plan on a yearly scan. I think it is very important.” added Stevens.
“For me, knowing that I was alive for another day gave me strength to face another.”
Bev Stevens took a drive through Ripley last Thursday evening. She came to the conclusion shortly after that life really is good after all.