The Friend Who Saved My Life: Tales of Unwavering Friendship
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The Friend Who Saved My Life: Tales of Unwavering Friendship

Has the connection between you and your best friend ever become nothing less than a lifeline? That's what happened to these three grateful women.

Heart to Heart: After Losing a Husband

"Nothing prepares you for the news that your husband has cancer," says Caroline Crawford. "Alan was 42, I was 31, and we had a 7-month-old son, Carl. That was five years ago. The diagnosis was lymphoma of the central nervous system.

"Thankfully, my best friend, Geri Ann Higgins, was there to help get me through it. We had been friends ever since we met at Goucher College, in Baltimore. After our 1991 graduation, she moved to Burlington, Vermont, near where she had grown up, and I moved to New York City, but two years later I needed a fresh start and called to ask if she wanted a roommate. I moved in and pretty soon we both had boyfriends. We got married just months apart, in 1996. I had a wonderful husband in Alan, but I was concerned for Geri Ann. I just didn't think she and her husband were a good match. And I was right.

"Geri Ann eventually confided in me that even though she was trying to make her marriage work, it just wasn't. It was very hard on her emotionally and Alan supported her just as much as I did. I'd come home and find him comforting her while she sat on our couch and cried. Finally Geri Ann got divorced, early in 2001. Not long after that, in February, Alan got his diagnosis. I couldn't bring myself to tell people, so Geri Ann spread the word. Everyone was great. But Geri Ann was the best. When you've known someone that long, you don't need to talk, or even ask for help. When Alan was undergoing chemotherapy, she organized friends to buy groceries for me, helped with my housework, and made sure there was someone home with Alan when I couldn't be. Basically, she was the point person. Anytime anyone asked how they could help, I said, 'Call Geri Ann.' It was just so exhausting for me to try to deal with it all.

"Before Alan started treatment, he banked his sperm. Seven weeks into treatment, he felt well enough to go back to work as a photographer. We were ecstatic. A year later, because we knew Alan's condition might not improve, I went for intrauterine insemination in the hopes that he might see his child before he died and got pregnant on the first try."

"I called Geri Ann, and then I called my parents and our friends. I was so excited and Alan was beside himself. That mood lasted all of one month before Alan's doctor told us that he had only a few more weeks to live. At that point the best choice was for him to be in a hospice. Now I had a husband who was dying and a toddler -- and I was pregnant. But Geri Ann was there and she said, 'I'll take care of everything.' And she did, once again running errands, buying groceries, and babysitting.

"Alan died in September 2002. The hospice called me at 8 p.m. Geri Ann came and stayed all night to look after things while I was away. Alan was conscious to the end. He died at 12:30 a.m. with me at his side. When I got home at 4 a.m., Geri Ann was there. I didn't have to walk into an empty house. I didn't have to be alone. I can't tell you what that meant."

"Six months later I gave birth to my daughter, Elizabeth. Once again Geri Ann called everybody but this time with good news. Elizabeth was baptized on what would have been Alan's and my seventh wedding anniversary, April 27, 2003. And Geri Ann is Elizabeth's godmother."

"Now Geri Ann has some good news of her own. She was married in May 2005 to a sweet, kind man. We see each other often and she's very involved with my kids. When they get older, I'll tell them how deep my friendship with Geri Ann goes and why. Alan would like that. There's a photograph of him in the children's room, smiling in the sunshine. None of us will ever forget him for a moment."

A Light at the End of the Tunnel: Smoking Support Buddies

"I decided to quit smoking before my 40th birthday," says Alison Miller, now 42. "I had quit once before, when my company sponsored a program run by the American Lung Association, but I only held out about three months. My husband was a smoker and without ongoing support, I caved. Pretty soon I was back up to two packs a day."

"Then in 2003 I'd had enough. I was coughing all the time and would get winded after climbing a flight of stairs. So I went to the American Lung Association Web site to look for a support group in the San Diego area. What I found was the association's online campaign, Freedom From Smoking, at www.ffsonline.org. The site includes information, affirmations, and message boards where people can chat with one another, get questions answered and, most important, seek support. After signing up, members pick a 'quit day,' which is usually within three weeks of starting the program. Most smokers use the time before their quit day to mentally prepare themselves for what's ahead, to ask friends, family and coworkers for support, find Nicotine Anonymous classes, and even to stock up on gum and hard candy. But one morning before my three weeks were over, I found I had gone 24 hours without lighting up. I immediately logged on and posted a message that said 'I think I accidentally quit smoking but I haven't followed all the steps.'

"A member named Sandi Lorenzen answered me right away and encouraged me to keep up the good work. I felt a connection with Sandi immediately. She was about my age and had been cigarette-free for five months, ever since she was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) -- of which emphysema is one form -- an illness she was told had been caused by her four-pack-a-day habit. Whenever she felt like she might slip, she said, she went online for help.

"It wasn't easy to stop reaching for a cigarette, especially at the beginning, but every time I felt the urge I'd sit down at my computer and Sandi would be there for me. There were lots of other people, too, of course, both online and off. But Sandi was my main source of help and by coincidence she lived 45 minutes from me.

"After months of chatting online, we decided to organize a meeting of members from Southern California. Sandi and I were the only two who showed up. Our friendship grew from there. Her relationship with her boyfriend was ending and I was getting a divorce, so we leaned on each other a lot. I'd be sitting in court looking over at my soon-to-be-ex and all I wanted was a cigarette. But the minute I left, I'd call Sandi and she'd talk me off the ledge. That's what we called it because she was literally saving my life.

"Not long after my divorce was finalized I met a terrific man and we just moved to Michigan to be closer to his parents, who live here, and mine, who live in western New York. Sandi has recently been promoted at the medical research facility where she works. But the best news is that her diagnosis of COPD was in error; her lungs were so damaged from years of smoking that her doctors made a mistake. Now they're almost completely clear. I'm healthy too, not just physically but emotionally. My life has never been better. And I know without a doubt that I have my dear friend Sandi to thank for that. I miss her now but I know we'll never lose touch."

A Lifeline of Love: Organ Transplant Donor

"When I was 28 years old and my kids were 3 and 1, I was dying," says Tracy Wilde, now 34. "I had developed primary sclerosing cholangitis, an incurable inflammation and obstruction of the bile ducts that led to scarring and cirrhosis of the liver. I was getting sicker by the day. After seeing several local doctors, my husband and I drove 18 hours from our home, in Weaverville, North Carolina, to the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota, to get the best care possible.

"The news wasn't good. My only hope was a liver transplant, but the waiting list for cadaver organs was long and my time was running out. Doctors told me there was a relatively new procedure using one lobe of the liver of a living donor. The organ later grows back to normal size in both the donor and the recipient. All I could think was, who in their right mind would offer to be a donor? After all, major surgery involves risks and a lot of pain. Of course, my husband and immediate family volunteered, but no one was a match for my rare blood type, O negative.

"Then my friend Wendy Ballard said she wanted to get tested. We had met at church five years earlier and became instant pals. We were pregnant with our firstborns at the same time, attended Lamaze classes together and, after our kids arrived, spent almost every day either chatting on the phone, visiting in the afternoon, or shopping for baby gear. Even so, when she said she wanted to be my donor, I was reluctant to let her make such a sacrifice for me. I mean, she was 30 at the time with two little kids of her own!

"But I underestimated her. She wouldn't give up on the idea. And I'll never forget my shock when I found out we were a match. I was scared for Wendy but she was thrilled. In the late winter of 2002, we left our kids with our in-laws and traveled with our husbands to the Mayo Clinic. We had the surgery on March 22, 2002. I had to stay in Minnesota for three months while I recuperated, but Wendy was able to leave the hospital after just five days and fly home just two weeks later. In three weeks, her liver was back to its normal size; mine had returned to normal by my three-month checkup in July.

"Now, like all transplant recipients, I take medication to prevent rejection but otherwise I'm totally healthy. I'm still a full-time mom and Wendy is working as a radiographer at a local hospital. Not a day goes by that I don't feel grateful to her. Right after the surgery I gave her a string of pearls and told her that she'll always be my pearl. Still, there's no way I can ever truly thank her for the gift she gave me. She'll get her gift in heaven."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, June 2006.

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