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Tue, Oct 8, 2019 at 05:00 AM

Abby’s Story: Losing mother led to career as cancer care nurse

Her grandmother, a cancer survivor, is also an inspiration as a cancer center volunteer.

Growing up in a family hit hard by cancer built a resolve in one young girl to dedicate her life to nursing patients dealing with the disease. Now that she is fulfilling the dream, she knows her late mother would be proud. 

“She knew this was my ultimate goal,” said Abby Maltbie Whitehead, now a nurse at the Marshall Cancer Care Center, where her mother, her grandmother and two aunts have been treated. “I wanted to be able to return the favor to those who helped her.”

Gretchen Maltbie battled breast cancer on and off for 16 years before she passed away in 2017. Abby witnessed her mom’s sickness and pain, got to know her doctors and nurses and felt the kindness delivered along with her medical care. It meant so much to her, she knew that’s what she was supposed to do with her life. In 2015, just as Abby was applying to nursing school, her mom’s doctors discovered the cancer had spread to her brain. 

“That really put more reasoning behind what I wanted to do,” she said. “Then, more than ever, I knew that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

While Gretchen was being treated at Marshall Cancer Care Center, Abby got to know the doctors and staff well. If she felt her mom was holding back details to spare her family, Abby didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask what was going on.

She began working at the Cancer Care Center as a patient access clerk while a student at Snead State Community College. She left while studying for her bachelor’s degree at UAH, where she was able to commute from home. It was during that time that Abby lost her mom. For months before, Gretchen had good days and bad days but downplayed the bad ones. 

“You never heard the woman complain,” Abby remembered. 

It ended all too soon. The young family had to let go of their beloved mother.

“She just didn’t wake up one morning,” Abby recalled. “She had declined so much at that time. We agreed as a family that’s the way it was meant to happen and we could rest knowing that she is not suffering anymore.”

Because it was her brother’s senior year, the family pulled together to make his graduation a happy time. It was good for them all. 

“We had someone else to be strong for.”

Abby went back to nursing school. During an oncology clinical soon after, she was assigned to care for her classmate’s father, who was gravely ill. He told her he was worried about how his daughter would deal with his diagnosis.

“He said I have a daughter and I want her to be okay,” Abby recalled. “He said I know you’ve been through a lot and he asked me how I felt as a child of someone who had passed away. He cried and I cried as we talked. That’s when I knew more than ever that we are put in a place and a time for a reason. That solidified what I thought I wanted to do.”

Soon after she graduated from UAB last fall, Abby applied for a nursing position at the Marshall Cancer Care Center because she knew that’s where she wanted to start her career.
"Abby is a sweet girl and she loved her mom dearly,” said Cindy Sparkman, director of the Cancer Care Center. “I think it is a wonderful legacy that Gretchen left behind when she left a daughter who pursued healthcare in order to help others like the mother she lost.” 

Abby’s fraternal grandmother, Wanda Maltbie, was treated there for breast and colon cancer, and eventually became a volunteer. All the staff now knows Wanda as Nanna. Abby felt like it was where she belonged. 

“I knew the environment. I knew the doctors. I knew how it operated. It was exciting to come back. I see some of the same patients I saw before. It’s very rewarding.”
Wanda is very close to her granddaughter, who she watched work toward her goal even while enduring heartbreaking loss. 

“I know what she’s been through all these years,” she said. “She’s strong to do what she’s doing every day and make it easier for other people. I’m humbled and thankful she wanted to go on and help people instead of going the other way. I’m just happy for her and very proud of her.”

Wanda also is proud of Abby’s brother Brett, who is studying cybersecurity, and her sister Amanda, who is employed at the University of Alabama. Her son Randy, who has remarried, is a good father and the entire family is very close from what they have suffered together. 

“Ya’ll are strong,” Wanda told Abby. “You’re moving on with your life just like your mom would want you to. Gretchen would want that. She wouldn’t have it any other way than for life to go on.”
Abby says it’s nice to have her Nanna as part of the dedicated volunteers caring for cancer patients. 

“It makes me happy that she comes here too,” she said. “I make a joke with the girls in the back all the time that it’s a family reunion here. It makes it special.”

Her family was by her side in April when Abby married her longtime love, Brandon. It was a bittersweet occasion because she missed having her mom at her wedding.

“It was hard but it was good.”

The couples lives in Arab and Abby is now working toward a master’s degree.

More than most women at the young age of 23, Abby knows the importance of early detection and monthly self-exams. The genetics are scary because she has breast cancer on both sides of her family and with one of them being a first-degree relative, she knows she’s at a greater chance of developing the disease.

“There’s always the ‘What if?’”, she admits. 

But she doesn’t live her life worrying about may happen. She’s lived through enough to know to enjoy living and to give back in the way she was meant to. 

“It’s rewarding because I know why I want to do it.”

Click here for more stories about the Face Of Breast Cancer In Marshall County