Cancer Patient, Family Praise Support, Compassion at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital
Trisha Rehpelz’s roots run deep in Virginia Beach, and so do her ties with Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.
Trisha and her extended family consider Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital their “home” hospital. Many care providers, including Trisha’s nurse navigator, have a special place in her heart after Trisha, her sister and their mom were all patients at the hospital in the same year.
Trisha, 56, also was one of the first patients to be treated through Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital's advanced gynecological oncology program.
One Diagnosis Leads to Another
Trisha’s latest healthcare journey started after she experienced breathing difficulty, felt dizzy and couldn’t walk. She called the ambulance, which took her to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital.
“That’s where we’ve always gone – my whole family,” said Trisha, who worked for 40 years at her family’s Charlie’s Seafood Restaurant in Virginia Beach and has also volunteered with Ocean Park rescue. “It’s a couple miles from home, and it was comforting to be at a familiar place. I also transported patients there as an EMT.”
Emergency room physicians diagnosed Trisha with a pulmonary embolism, a sudden blockage in a lung artery caused by a blood clot.
Trisha was hospitalized for eight days for the embolism in April 2017. During the hospital stay, she also mentioned abnormal vaginal bleeding to her physicians, which they determined to be uterine bleeding. Trisha followed up with her gynecologist when she was released from the hospital. A biopsy revealed she had stage 1 uterine cancer.
“My doctor told me it was a good thing I came in for the embolism because it might have taken me longer to get the cancer diagnosis,” said Trisha.
Because of certain medical conditions, Trisha waited a few months before her hysterectomy.
Caretaker for Mom, Sister
At the same time, Trisha was also taking care of her sister, Lizzie, who was fighting glioblastoma, an aggressive malignant brain tumor. Lizzie was diagnosed in March 2016 after suffering severe memory loss and confusion.
While Lizzie was recovering at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital from one of her brain surgeries, their mother, then 85, fell and broke her hip at home. She, too, was admitted to the hospital, and Trisha bounced from floor to floor to visit with both patients.
Trisha particularly remembers the kindness of her sister’s neurosurgeon, Dr. Wylie Zhu, chief of neurosurgery with Sentara Medical Group. He would find Trisha in her mother’s hospital room to deliver updates about her sister. She also appreciated Dr. Zhu’s office staff.
“It’s unbelievable how wonderful they were to us,” said Trisha, who also worked as a case manager with her mother at their own rehabilitation services company. “I think of them as dear friends now.”
Carol Hodies, an oncology patient navigator, also became a trusted friend and source of advice and guidance for Trisha and Lizzie. She was both of the sisters’ patient navigator.
“It was a pleasure to navigate both Trisha and Lizzie,” Carol said. “They were so inspiring. Despite their circumstances, they were always full of laughter and positivity, and always interested in those around them.”
Sister and Hospital Bonds
Lizzie valiantly and persistently battled glioblastoma, but the aggressive cancer kept returning. She passed away at Sentara Hospice House in October 2017.
A month later, Trisha returned to Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital to complete her cancer treatment, a total hysterectomy with the minimally invasive daVinci robot.
“The day I had my surgery I felt Lizzie with me all day,” said Trisha, a doting aunt of eight nieces and nephews and seven great-nieces and nephews. “I knew she was with me the whole time I was there.”
Trisha credits her family, Catholic faith and church community with giving her the strength to cope with all she endured. She’s grateful for how helpful her three siblings have been taking care of all three patients.
“I am blessed,” she said. “I’m doing better on all accounts. The blood clot is gone and the cancer is gone. I can’t thank all of our health care providers enough.”