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When cancer put Holly Reineck through a rough patch, she found a way to make it bloom

Posted Monday, Sep. 17, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Holly Reineck will tell you that April 27 of this year was the day her life changed. That was when she received a tough medical diagnosis that laid her low for a while and made her re-examine everything.

Remarkably soon, though, she had absorbed the news, dried her eyes, and set out to make the best of it. Less than five months later, the fruits of her generosity and drive are being felt by others fighting for their health.

Reineck is 36, a dentist who lives in Burleson with her husband, Kurt, also a dentist. They have three small children, twin 6-year-old girls and a 3-year-old son.

About a year ago, she started feeling unusually fatigued. "I kept putting everything off to stress, because not only do I have three kids but I was working full time," she says. She had night sweats, too, then suddenly lost 15 pounds for no apparent reason.

In January, while trying to jog with her husband, she had to pull up and stop. "That's when I said, 'Something's wrong with me.'"

Her doctor suspected an autoimmune disease, but it would be months before the recommended rheumatologist could squeeze her in. After a few more weeks, she managed to get an appointment with her mother's rheumatologist in Houston.

"Within about 30 seconds, he took a look at my labs and at me, and said, 'You need to get scans for lymphoma.' Three days later I did, and I lit up like a Christmas tree. It was everywhere."

The diagnosis: Stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"It was a Friday, and that was a hard weekend. It was devastating. I would never in a million years have dreamed that this was what was wrong with me. For like a week, every time I looked at my kids I started crying."

Welcome to chemo

Back home, a friend quickly got her an appointment with Dr. Robert Ruxer in Fort Worth. Even before her first visit, "he had already relayed some stuff about how positivity works, how your attitude is 50 percent of the battle."

Her emotions soon started to turn around.

"I would say that after a few days, you either choose to fight or you choose to be a victim to it," she says.

Ruxer is one of 10 doctors at Texas Oncology Fort Worth -- 12th Avenue, a pleasant low-slung facility in the Fort Worth medical district. Reineck's first look at the infusion room during a group orientation, known as "chemo class," was dispiriting.

"I had this image of bright colors," she says. "But when we first walked in, I almost started crying. It was so white and stark."

And so communal, which may surprise some people. The infusion room is quite large, with seven rows of high-backed reclining chairs, lined up like chairs at a beauty salon. In fact, if you don't examine things too closely, it resembles nothing so much as the biggest nail salon you've ever seen.

On a busy Friday, 77 people have appointments. Most chairs are filled, and during treatment patients entertain themselves like they are in an airport terminal: playing videogames, working on laptops, scrolling their smartphones. Reineck, ever energetic, learned to crochet to help pass the time. People are even allowed to eat in here (thanks to advances in nausea medications, Ruxer says -- this wasn't always so).

Treatment sessions can last as long as six hours, which makes the ambience of the room especially important. Texas Oncology, which has 135 locations statewide, recognized this early on, Ruxer says.

"In designing the centers, we try to have windows or light-filled areas as much as we can," he says. "At one center, we have a garden in the back, and there's another that looks out over a lake. But in some buildings you're stuck, particularly in a medical district like this where you've got parking lots to look at."

Here, one long wall is topped with windows that run all the way across, but there's still a lot of wall space. And it used to be covered with a dismal shade of off-white.

While undergoing her first infusion here, Reineck pondered those walls again and wondered if she could do something about them.

"I told a friend that I hoped to donate a mural, and she said, 'Why would you wait? Do it so you can enjoy it, too -- do it now,'" she says. "I figured there was a board or someone who had to approve it. But I just asked, and it was actually pretty simple from there. I was surprised by how willing they were to let something like that happen.

"There's got to be a way to create a more positive environment. Everyone is fighting," Reineck continues. "No one needs to think of negative things as all these chemicals are coming into your body."

Ruxer agrees.

"Positive outlook, I think, is important," he says. "An individual's outlook on their treatment and their prognosis is an important factor in getting better."

A little chromo-therapy

Reineck's vision became a whole series of murals all around the room. To do the work, she commissioned Beth Campbell, an East Texas artist who had painted designs for Reineck's children's rooms. Campbell had also done murals for big institutional and commercial spaces, including schools, churches and Grapevine's Delaney Vineyards.

Holly and Kurt Reineck paid for the work, and Campbell began painting this summer, starting at about 3 each afternoon, when patients are starting to clear out, and going until 8 p.m.

She's almost done.

The theme, suggested by Holly Reineck, is the four seasons -- she wanted a colorful subject that wasn't too age- or gender-specific. Two long, full walls have autumn and winter landscapes; the fall mural is ablaze with vivid colors, the winter one more muted.

"I was kind of worried about winter," Campbell says, "because patients sometimes say they are cold sitting here, and they're wearing blankets, but I've had so many people respond positively."

The short half-walls were a bigger challenge, as was making the designs show up behind all those treatment chairs. The partial walls thus have simple spring and summer motifs with big flowers, birds and butterflies. There are several inspirational quotes, also chosen by Holly Reineck.

Campbell is careful to use quick-drying acrylic paint with no scent, and she gets feedback from patients as she works.

"They thank me, and everybody seems to have their favorite wall," she says.

Rita Marlin has been coming to this room for two years as her husband, Henry, gets treatments. She says they are grateful for the changes.

"It makes you feel like you're at home, and not in a doctor's office," she says. "When you look around you don't see all these IVs, all these monitors, you just see all the flowers. It's so beautiful."

Adds Ruxer: "It's just grand. Patients love it, and it's transformed the room. I was just blown away."

The project has caught on with Reineck's and Campbell's friends and families, too. Reineck's friends have sent donations, and Campbell's showed up as volunteers to help paint. Both would like to expand the idea to other cancer treatment facilities.

Reineck revels in the good vibes she has helped create.

"You never know what kind of difference you can make," she says. "In a way this diagnosis been a really big gift because it's been a wake-up call for our family about what's important."

Though she keeps a low profile when she's here for treatment, preferring to keep headphones on and not interact with others, she lets herself eavesdrop sometimes when other patients are commenting on the art.

"It's kind of like being a fly on the wall, and that's fun," she says. "I can hear people say positive things. It almost seems like even the nurses are happier, you can just feel the positivity. It's something that will be here as long as they're in this building.

"And that's what I wanted: to have as happy a place as possible, with what we're all dealing with."

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