Wednesday, June 11, 2008
For one day--Nats320 is getting away from Baseball--for a special reason. Since Washington, DC again became a Major League Town, Chartese Burnett has been The Vice President of Communications for Our Washington Nationals. But what many may not be aware of is that Chartese is a Cancer Survivor. Diagnosed in 1999 with a serious tumor--Ms Burnett fought hard to beat a dreaded disease. And in doing so--found a cause to call her own. A willingness to help others in need.
Now a Cancer Survivor--Chartese is a mother of two (2 1/2 Year Old Giovanna and 13 Year Old Lisette). She is married to Paul.
Over the past 10 weeks, Chartese, in conjunction with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has been attempting to raise up to $170,000 for cancer awareness. An effort she cherishes as a nominee for The 2008 Man & Woman of The Year Awards for The Society. Just a few weeks ago--Ms. Burnett--along with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society hosted a fund raiser at The Stars & Stripes Club of New Nationals Park. An evening where Joel Hanrahan, Lastings Milledge and Ryan Zimmerman were auctioned off for dates--all proceeds going to her cause. Our Number 11--by himself--raised $5,000 toward Chartese's Goal.
With just three more days remaining in her quest--The Society Gala will be held this Saturday Night at The Mellon Auditorium in Washington. Sohna and I spoke with her this afternoon from New Nationals Park. This conversation will be mostly "In Her Own Words." The Story very touching. Her Cause worth the time to read.
Chartese Burnett did not hold back today. All her worries, fears and tears were brought out this day. To her great credit--Chartese was willing to talk about the entire story--from the very beginning--not just the ending.
With that--here we go with Our Conversation With Chartese Burnett.
“This has been a life changing experience for me. In 1999, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. I went to the doctor after having a cough. For nearly 30 years, I have been a vegetarian. I have been very healthy, worked out on a regular basis—just a healthy 39 year old with a five-year-old daughter at the time. I was very, very blessed.”
“Preparing for The Super Bowl in Atlanta, being really busy with Super Bowl Activities while I was working with The NFL Players Association—there was a lot going on. Including doing the Mommy things getting ready for the holidays. And I just had this cough. This nagging cough during the entire month of December—maybe starting a few late weeks in November.”
“So, I was heading over to CNN Center to visit with some folks at CNN about the Players Party, all the Super Bowl events which we (NFLPA) was participating in. Here I was walking up the escalator and I could hardly breath. The cough had got to a point where it was constant. Typically, I walk up the escalator to get more exercise, and I could hardly breath. This young lady I was working with (from a PR FIRM) said: ‘you really need to go to the doctor? It doesn’t sound right. You’ve had this nagging cough for weeks.'”
“I set up an appointment while I was in Atlanta with my Mom’s pulmonary doctor. And when I got back—I went in on December 10th (1999) to the pulmonary doctor (in Washington, DC). They took a routine chest exam. Now I am thinking I have pneumonia or something like that. Then, I find the doctor astonished and shocked when he called me back into his office to look at my chest exam. I remember him asking me the question—‘IS THIS YOU?’ That was the question as he put the X-Ray up for viewing. ‘I suppose, the nurse gave it back to you (nervous laughter).’ And I had never had a chest X-Ray—so I didn’t know what to expect or look for. But, what was pointed out to me was this mass, this gray cloud that was the size of an eggplant in the picture. It was in my chest, behind my sternum.”
“The Doctor says: ‘This doesn’t look good.’ OK, you are scaring me. We were sitting down at the time. He held my hand. I had not met this doctor until that very day. He asked if I wanted to call my husband. OK, this really doesn’t sound good. The Doctor said it could be one of three things—including a malignant tumor. ‘This could be any of those three and you need to go get a biopsy right away,’ he said.”
“First I called my pastor of my church, then my husband and then my sister. My husband and sister met me down at the doctor’s office. He explained to them about the biopsy. This mass was close to my heart, near my lungs—making it difficult for me to breathe. And he could tell from my cardiac artery in my neck—it was impacting my breathing.”
“It was a Friday, my niece’s (sister’s daughter) birthday. I am not going to do anything this weekend. I am going to dinner, going to have crab cakes and I will go in to the hospital on Monday. My sister said: ‘Wait a minute. Is that not stupid? I think you really need to go in right now.’”
“I am not going in until Monday, I repeated. I am going to go and do what I need to do. I am going to church on Sunday. We were preparing for a Christmas Show—my daughter was involved in at Church.”
“So on Monday, I went in for the biopsy and woke up later that evening. They (GW University Hospital) told me they would keep me. Then, I knew it was very serious. The next morning I woke up and there was this gentleman—Dr. Robert Siegel—who was Head of Oncology at GW at my bedside. I knew I had cancer.”
“One week later on December 17th (1999), I had my first chemotherapy treatment. From the days after my biopsy to the day of the first chemo—the cancer would not distinguish itself. The cells would not distinguish themselves. They (The Doctors) knew it was Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and it was malignant. But, they could not tell the kind. So, they could not determine the protocol for care. Finally, on the Thursday before chemo began, it distinguished itself. They cooked up a strong conoction of three ‘Poisons’ as I call them. But, they did make me well with chemotherapy. It was very, very strong.”
“We had to start them immediately on Friday, December 17th. So, one week after the tumor was found—I began chemotherapy treatment. Every three weeks, I would have chemotherapy for six months straight—going to the Cancer Center (GWU). After the first treatment, they wanted to keep me over the weekend to see how your body reacts. But, my daughter was performing at that Church Christmas Play and I told them: ‘you got me all day today. Tomorrow, I am leaving. I am going to get home and I am going to see my daughter perform in this program.' She had a solo.”
“My Doctor ranted and raved. I was feeling pretty good. I was eating some Chinese Food. My hospital room was like The PARTY ROOM!! I had to get special permission because my hospital room had everyone there from my office (NFLPA was right down the street). I had constant, around the clock visitors (laughing). My doctors were coming by, my family. I felt very, very good—little crazy when I got home after not taking the anti-nauseous medicine. I did go home on that Saturday. I felt OK and got through it.”
“Now, the second round was different. I felt really, really sick. And I started taking the anti-nauseous medicine. (Laughing) And I thought I was a trooper. Oh, well. Went on to the Christmas Program with my daughter. I was just SO, SO, THANKFUL to be there. It was GREAT!!”
Over the next few weeks, I got through my second round of Chemotherapy. I did well through that one. But I started to lose my hair. I remember New Years Even (2000), we were about to celebrate The Millennium and I could just touch my hair and it would fall out in clumps. But I was feeling really well and I wanted to see The New Year. So, a few weeks after that I got it all shaved off. I had to do it. It was just too disturbing—very gut wrenching.”
“Anyway—after the first chemotherapy session—they (doctors) took more chest X-Rays. The tumor had shrunk 75%!! And with a fast growing tumor like this was—it was very dangerous. If they had not caught it in time—it would have killed me. But, the positive to that was—being fast growing—it dies very fast. That’s exactly what happened.”
“I will tell you the following Saturday after first seeing the doctor and the X-Ray—I was very, very scared. My first thought when I called my pastor was: ‘My daughter couldn’t lose her mom.’ That was my first thought. That was what I was most scared of. I was not really scared of dying—but of leaving my daughter behind. That Saturday, she had dance rehearsal. So, that Saturday morning, I remember going into the drug store while she was in class. There was a Rite Aid in the same area. I went inside to buy a mini-tape recorder to tape my sentiments to her. I wanted to be able to talk to her everyday, if I was not here. Then she will have something of me (pause)…telling her…(sobbing) how I feel about her. Life left her fit—maybe I can pass along…(long sigh)”
Chartese was emotionally remembering the moment. She was crying. We let her take some time to recover.
“I am so sorry.” (You have nothing to be sorry about—SBF).
“But anyway, I was standing in the drug store aisle….and I knew then I was not going to die. I know that God spoke to me and said: ‘Chartese—you are not going to die. This is not about you dying. This is bigger than that. This is not even going to be about you. It’s what I can do through you. Or, what you can do—having gone through this.’ I DID NOT BUY THAT TAPE RECORDER!!” From that time on—I knew I was going to be OK. Everything was going to be fine. And I felt God’s presence more than I ever had.”
“When I went in for the biopsy and woke up the next morning. I went in fighting. When I went to surgery for the biopsy—I went in fighting—with attitude. No matter what—this was going to be a miracle. If this tumor was not malignant—that’s a miracle—considering the mass. If it is malignant, I am going to be OK. I was in the hospital with that mindset. I was going to fight this and I was going to win this battle.”
“And as soon as I met Dr. Siegel—I told him the only rule was that “I don’t want anyone, including you, to come into this room and talk about a prognosis. I don’t want you to tell me what you think is going to happen. I don’t want you to tell me how long you think I have to live. I just want you to get me well. I want you to spread that word to anyone that walks into my room.”
“It became the running joke. They knew my rules. (Laughing) As I told Dr. Siegel, it’s about you helping me get well, that’s your job. You don’t know how long I have. You don’t know how sick I am. You are not the ultimate decision maker. You are taking good care of me and I am very thankful for that. But, I don’t want you or anyone telling me what you can’t predict.'”
“After six months of chemotherapy and radiation treatment—just as a precaution—on Easter Sunday (2000), I was declared in April—Cancer Free!! There were some more radiation treatments—just as a precaution again—everyday for about ten minutes. I was OK. Fine. A Terrific Feeling."
To say the least—this changed your life in every single way? (SBF)
“Yes, it changed my life. It changed my perspective. It changed everything about how I think about things. My resolve and how I view things at work became different. And I never want to let the big scar across my chest go away. One time, a doctor told me we could just fill that out with some collagen. We can get rid of that scar. ‘Nope—I never want to forget. I never want to forget the trials. Because I always want to remember how blessed I am and I always want to remember what’s important in life. And I want to remember who is important to me in my life. So, I am going to keep this scar. It is ugly (laughing). But it is OK. It is. I don’t EVER WANT TO FORGET.”
“At times, I get mad at myself, because I do forget when things bother me. I get upset about little things when I don’t remember what I went through nine years ago and how I fought to live. It makes me angry that I fight about other things. Whether it’s relations with my husband, things at work. I don’t do it often, but I get mad at myself for doing that.”
"So, while I was in treatment, I decided I wanted to do something. I had picked up a brochure on The Aids Marathon. I am going to start doing this. My doctor nixed that right away. ‘Are you crazy?’ he said. ‘You don’t even have your hair back. You are still going through radiation.’ And I replied: ‘I want to get back to something.’ Shortly after that, I was in the Cancer Center (GWU) and they had a little box from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society—which I had never heard of before. I had heard of Leukemia, but never an organization like this that had a mission of research, funding and patient services—things like that.”
“They had a Light The Night Walk—a grass roots initiative—were patients walk with other survivors, family and friends—anyone that wants to get involved. Every chapter across the country walks with lighted balloons. Here in Washington, they start at Freedom Plaza and walk every October. The program has expanded greatly now. They do it in Reston (Virginia), Montgomery County (Maryland), and in Fairfax County (VA) now—since I got involved in 2000.”
“I formed a friends and family team in 2000 to fight back and give back. I raised over $23,000 just with family and friends. Just me asking others to walk with me. And that was not even one year since my original diagnosis. So, after doing so well with my family and friends team—the Society asked if I would like to chair the event for them. I was still in P.R. with The NFLPA. I said sure—why not. Not only did I chair the walk, but also I called Michael Jordan and asked Michael Jordan whether he would be my Honorary Chair. If I could use his likeness and his name to create awareness to promote the event here in Washington, DC. He was here at the time with The Washington Wizards. He had heard that I was sick. From 1991 through 1993, I worked with The NBA (National Basketball Association). We had worked together. He had retired (the first time) the very same year. We had known each other since 1991 and he had made the effort to contact me about my illness--previously. Although, I never quite figured out how he found me.”
“When I did my family and friends team in 2000, I sent a note to his manager—asking if Michael might want to do a contribution. I had a goal of raising $10,000. Two days later, I got a call from his manager, and she said: ‘You just made your goal!!’ And I said: ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘You have a goal of $10,000. Michael’s making a donation of $10,000.’ I was stunned and excited—to say the least.”
“The following year (2001), I circled back and asked Michael if he would help me again and be my Honorary Chair. Michael has never put his name on anything other than Gatorade or Nike (laughing). He never lent his likeness to anyone except the clubs for whom he worked, Gatorade or Nike. And he did. Michael Jordan gave me his likeness, the permission to use his photos on all the collateral material. He made a generous donation to the fundraiser. We ended up raising so much money, our Walk was the Number One Walk in the country.”
“In 2002, I was asked to chair again. I asked Michael Wilbon (Washington Post) if he would join me as my Honorary Chair. He did. Again, with all the efforts of all the volunteers and those who just wanted to help—we were the Number One Walk in the country again.”
“Moving fast forward, I am been on the board (The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society) for seven years now. And their work is important, and not just because I was stricken with a blood cancer. 78 Cents of every dollar raised goes to the mission. Everything they do is first class. They hold the largest Non-Political Fundraiser in the country—every year—The Leukemia Ball.”
“A few years ago—they asked about being nominated for Man & Woman of The Year. I just was not ready. I had too many things on my plate. It was not a good time to do that. And quite frankly, I was sort of scared. It’s a challenge. I had gone to some of the Gala’s where they announced the winners. I was familiar the campaigns. And I just could not believe people would take on this challenge. In 10 weeks, having to raise a significant amount of money. Some amounts that just have blown my mind. How do people do this? These are people who are socialites, folks who own wineries, and I am thinking: ‘I don’t stack up to these people?’ I work really hard. I am a mom. I can’t do this.”
“But, they asked me this year at a board meeting. These last few years have been challenging for me. I lost my mom last year. Work is very challenging, as you guys (Sohna & SBF) are familiar with. But, I needed to embrace it. This is my year to do this. I am doing this in honor of my mom—who I lost due to heart disease. I just know she would want me to do this. She has always taught me to do whatever I want to do. I want her to be proud of me. And it was time. OK Chartese—you are going to have to step it up a little. You can embrace this campaign and you can do this for the society. So, I did.”
Is it working out for you? I know you are trying to raise $170,000. (SBF)
“I am trying to. That was my own goal. There is no real set minimum that you have to raise. I am close to $80,000 now. I am probably not going to make my goal. I understand it’s a difficult year when it comes to fundraising. I would love to make the $170,000—if I made $100,000—I would be very, very pleased with that. But, if I can’t make those additional $20,000 in three days—I will have known I have done every single thing possible to reach out in venues, and in persons within my comfort zone. The support from so many people has been amazing—including The Washington Nationals. The Players, My Staff, especially through the Date Auction. So, I know that I have done everything possible to do. And I know that Saturday, when The Gala and Awards are Granted, I will have known I have done everything. And I know if I had only raised $20,000 or $5,000, and I hate saying “ONLY”—it’s more money to The Mission than it had beforehand. I am OK with that.”
It was nice of Zimmerman to give himself up for you? (SBF)
"Yes, absolutely. He is always there to help."
With that Our Conversation With Chartese Burnett concluded. As stated MANY, MANY TIMES on Nats320--it is sometimes about more than the baseball on the field. In this case--an opportunity to help raise awareness about cancer, research, diagnosis and therapy. Sohna and I applaud Chartese for her willingness to not only give back, but share her cause with us. If you wish to also assist Ms. Burnett in her attempt to become Woman Of The Year for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society--you can donate at this link.
Deadline is Saturday, June 14th, 2008.
We are sure--Chartese would appreciate your gift of thought.