BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer
I went to a funeral last week. Another one. Breast cancer.
She was a tiny little thing, and I often marveled at her fierce determination to stay alive. Funny and kind, with a laugh I will hear for the rest of my life, she was a nurse and gardener. In other words, an equal-opportunity caretaker.
Her friends gathered to pay our respects, to try to comfort her family, to listen to a summary of her life. The last part included state-of-the-art medical tortures - surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow transplant, transfusions, drugs of every description. She took it all and went back for more, grateful to try something new, something that might work.
We were wondering - as you often do at times like this - if there was something more we might have done.
It made me think of another nurse.
Rita Sauer works in the office of Dr. Donna Stahl, a distinguished surgeon specializing in breast disease. Full disclosure here: Donna Stahl is my doctor, and Rita has seen me in a flimsy gown with a vent in an inconvenient place. She lets me take off my rings, shoes, jacket, and blow my nose before I step onto the scales. She insisted that I would live when I was afraid I would die.
This woman is not a casual acquaintance.
And I am sure that all her patients feel the same way. We are not just her job. Considering that many of us lose the fight, it must be terrible for her.
''It makes me angry,'' she says. ''Day in and day out, you see people who are scared, are fighting. This is not just any disease. This is really awful. I see women being so brave. And I just wanted to do something.''
The ''something'' is a little angel, a chubby cherub, 5ï inches tall. Made of cast colorless resin, he holds the signal breast cancer pink ribbon. He's very cute. And Rita thinks you should go out and buy him immediately.
Angel for sale
Breast cancer is gaining on us, and he might be able to help. He's a fund-raiser, available for $20 . You can place an order in the crystal department of all area Lazarus stores or by calling 241-6616.
Sales fund breast cancer research. Well, how much of the profits actually go to fight cancer? ''All of it,'' Rita says firmly. She co-founded an organization called Breast Cancer Angels, Inc. There's an all-volunteer board, mostly breast cancer survivors, plus a long list of ''benefactor angels.'' This is their first venture. There will be more.
They've raised more than $60,000 since September.
It would be very tidy and maybe flattering to insist that Rita is an angel, too. But I am remembering that once, during an office visit, she ambushed me with a squirt gun filled with disappearing ink. And angels don't have freckles, do they?
No, I don't think she is superhuman or mythic or heavenly. I just think she is an uncommonly good person, a nurse brave enough to let her patients break her heart. She walks about 20 miles a week, when ''I think about them, people I've lost, their families.''
A friend advised her to keep more distance. ''But,'' she says, ''I'm afraid of what I might miss.''
There is a growing crowd of people with broken hearts. Not just women with breast cancer, but their kids and husbands and parents and partners. And nurses and doctors. We are beginning to know one another. We assemble with alarming frequency at the hospitals, the fund raisers, the funerals.
I think about Rita on her walks, reviewing her memories, hearing the echoes of laughter. I wonder how many times she has sat in one of those uncomfortable chairs, amid the aroma of flowers. Terrible. Sad. But at least she will not have to wonder if she could have done more.
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 email@example.com