By William C. Singleton III
At a recent Vestavia Hills football game, Penny Downes, wife of Vestavia Hills city manager Jeff Downes, was talking to a parent about what she hopes to accomplish as she regains her strength from treatments for multiple myeloma and prepared herself for the battle that lies ahead.
Penny Downes mentioned that, because her immune system is compromised by cancer treatments, she’s trying to make her home as germ-free as possible. Along with air purifiers throughout the house, she makes her children remove their shoes when they come from the garage into the house.
The woman she was talking to, whose daughter attends a Bible study with Downes’ oldest daughter, relayed the message to the Bible study group.
“The next thing I knew, her Bible study group had taken a collection, and they had a custom-made shoe cubby for me to fit in a little area in our garage,” Penny Downes said. “It’s just perfect. It’s just one way to keep the germs out of our house.”
Ever since Jeff and Penny Downes informed their neighbors, friends and the Vestavia Hills community about Penny’s diagnosis of multiple myeloma, the community has responded with an outpouring of support that has been surprising and overwhelming for the family.
Small gestures, unrequested help, random acts of kindness have made the Downes family ordeal more bearable.
And, for that, they are thankful, particularly in this season of Thanksgiving.
Warm Vestavia Welcome
“People are just so kind, so considerate, and we’re so blessed,” Jeff said. “When you leave a community like we did to come into a new community and then to be welcomed and hugged metaphorically and literally, it’s really neat,” said the Montgomery native.
Downes and his wife of nearly 21 years, both 51 years old, grew up in Montgomery and lived there until he was hired as the city manager of Vestavia Hills five years ago. It wasn’t easy unrooting one’s family from a city they had called home all their lives. Both Jeff and Penny, along with their four children – the oldest a special needs adult, two current high school students and a daughter now in middle school – packed up and moved about an hour north to Vestavia Hills.
“We took a leap of faith,” Jeff said. “We made the move to leave our comfortable (surroundings) with people who we’ve known for 40-plus years. We knew everybody. They knew us, and you move to a relatively new area. You don’t know how that community will respond to you.”
The Downeses discovered just how much their new community would embrace them.
In January, Penny Downes and her sister had planned a cruise when nagging pelvic pain made her seek out her doctor.
“I couldn’t lift my left leg,” she said. “I had to shuffle it.” Her doctor discovered she had a cyst on her ovary and a compression fracture in her back. “It was obviously shocking that I had the fracture,” she said. She didn’t remember falling or bumping into anything that would cause a back fracture.
After further tests, she was told she had multiple myeloma – an incurable cancer that eats away at one’s bones.
“As the cancer eats your bones, it puts the calcium from your bones into your blood stream, which gets into your kidneys and causes kidney damage and kidney failure,” Penny said. “I have had no kidney issues, though I do have several lesions on my hip and on my skull.”
“We were taken aback by the diagnosis,” Jeff said. “We just thought she might have had a strained back or muscle issues but turned out to be this condition that, if not treated, could lead to untimely death. So, we found a good doctor, surrounded ourselves with a supportive network of family and friends and relied upon our faith and began a journey of treatment.”
That journey of treatment includes a variety of drugs, chemotherapy and a trip in August to Emory Hospital in Atlanta for stem cell transplantation, Jeff said. The process, as Jeff explained, involves using chemotherapy to kill bone marrow, then reintroducing harvested stem cells into his wife’s body to rebuild her immune system.
Penny stayed at the hospital for nearly a month. She returns to Emory Hospital next month to determine whether the transplant was successful.
“We go back in December to have a full set of blood work done to see if the stem cell transplantation was totally successful, partially successful or not,” Jeff said.
“Since this is an incurable cancer, they (doctors) don’t say remission. They call it complete response. You can have a partial response. You can have complete. You can have no response,” Penny said. “What we pray for is that I’m in complete response.”
The decision to go public with Penny’s diagnosis wasn’t a hard one, the couple said. Penny shares updates about her situation with friends on her personal Facebook page. Jeff shared with the Vestavia Hills community through the city’s community newsletter. The family has sought other means to share their personal trials.
“We’re both extroverts,” Jeff said. “She’s a super extrovert. She will talk to anybody at any time. She has a very bubbly personality … . We have no motives other than just being ourselves.
“Some people when they go through something, they just withdraw and become focused on the tough times. In our case, we want to share, not just sickness, but our family’s successes and the bridges we have to cross. We just express ourselves, and my wife has done so to the point that she wants to make sure everybody knows she’s doing well, she’s progressing in this battle, and we have a great team around us to defeat this challenge.”
Claudette Galloway, whose granddaughter is on the cheerleading team, said Penny has the type of attitude that will be a big help to her as she fights cancer. “Penny has the best attitude,” she said. “To survive certain things you have to have a wonderful attitude.”
Penny said she has no time for self-pity.
“I feel like once I got over the initial shock of it, you just have to move on. You can’t dwell on that. We have four children, and we just live our life. That’s what you have to do. Go forward.”
Outpouring of Support
In moving forward, the Downes have discovered many who want to help them along the way.
“The kinds of food we’ve eaten over the course of the last three months have really been incredible,” Jeff said. “People have really outdone themselves and stepped forward with their best dishes.”
Penny said a neighbor had organized a food delivery operation on the family’s behalf. “She had dinners coming before I even left to go to Atlanta,” Penny said.
Another person had offered to remove the carpet from the Downeses’ basement steps and to install hardwood to minimize germs being trafficked from the basement into the house, Jeff said. Others have scheduled cleaning services to help Penny maintain a germ-free environment and have made sure their youngest daughter, Alex, makes it to cheerleading practice and back home. Their oldest daughter’s cheerleading team wrote “the most inspirational letters while I was in the hospital,” Penny said.
“Things we didn’t ask for, the community just jumped in to provide,” Jeff said. “People who have said, ‘We care about you, and we want to assist you in fighting this health condition.’”
The Downeses have also relied heavily upon their Catholic faith. Penny said she remembers her doctor’s appointment at Grandview in January. After having submitted to a battery of blood tests, with her husband and sister in one room, she went into the bathroom.
“I could feel the anxiety in me, and I just said, “Lord, it’s 11 o’clock. I know this very second there are so many people praying for me. I need to feel those prayers.’ And I did, immediately.”
Paying It Forward
Penny said she wants to make the most of her situation by helping others. She said she recently learned that one of her husband’s friends received news that his wife had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma.
“I want her to call me if she has questions because having someone know what you’re going through and being able to help you and give you answers to questions you have no idea about – that’s just so helpful and can help calm you down and help relieve your stress,” Penny said.
So even through treatment, the loss of hair, the coughing, the headaches and the masks that shield germs, Penny said the comfort she finds in her caring community of friends, family and the people of Vestavia Hills has let her know that she’s not making this journey alone.
“The generosity and the love and the kindness that we’ve been shown by Vestavia Hills from people we know and even people we don’t know, it’s honestly overwhelming. I didn’t know I had so many people who cared for me and my family,” Penny said.
And for this, she and the Downes family are thankful.