Treatha Brown-Foster has never been one to throw in the towel.
“I worked too hard in the ’60s for my rights to give up on anything without a fight,” says the almost 73-year-old community activist who, with her husband, William, also raised four sons.
Even after her retirement as a bank examiner and later as a financial services representative, Treatha continued to advocate for safer neighborhoods, better schools and other community improvements.
But in 2009, as she was getting ready for bed one night, her whirlwind of committee and board activities came to a crashing halt.
“Just like that — I had no air,” says Treatha.
Panicked, she called her sister, Josephine Lewis, a retired nurse, who rushed her to Ascension Via Christi St. Francis. There Treatha was diagnosed with heart failure — the same chronic disease that already had claimed the life of her father, two of her brothers and a sister.
Her near-death experience led to lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthier diet and exercising. It also led to regular physician visits, which over the past nine years has saved her life multiple times, allowing her to continue to champion causes near and dear to her heart and join Via Christi’s team at the Wichita Heart Walk on June 9.
Treatha’s unexpected first round
Treatha says she wasn’t worried when her primary care doctor Richa Sharma, MD, an internal medicine specialist at Ascension Medical Group, scheduled her annual mammogram in May 2012, noting, “I expected it to come back normal because I have no family history of cancer whatsoever.”
So when her mammogram showed a suspicious spot that a biopsy confirmed as stage 1 breast cancer, Treatha was beside herself.
Patty Tenofsky, MD, a breast care specialist at Ascension Medical Group, helped her sort out her options.
“She and her nurse, Terri Leschuk, really took their time with me, drawing out diagrams and explaining everything,” says Treatha, who ultimately decided to have the cancerous breast removed.
During her surgery at St. Francis, Richard DeSplinter, MD, a plastic surgeon with Ascension Medical Group, worked with Dr. Tenofsky to prevent keloid scarring, a tough, raised scar that would have prevented Treatha from wearing a prosthetic bra.
She then underwent radiation therapy at Ascension Via Christi Cancer Center.
“Everyone — from the receptionist to Dr. Jon Anders, who was my radiation oncologist — was so good to me, holding and hugging me when I needed it,” says Treatha. “I was never a number to any of them. I was a human being. I can’t tell you how much that helped.”
In December 2013, a spot on Treatha’s right lung that her oncologist, Shaker Dakhil, MD, of the Cancer Center of Kansas, had been closely monitoring since summer, suddenly showed signs of cancer activity.
Dr. Dakhil referred her to Richard Claiborne, MD, a pulmonologist at Ascension Medical Group, who ordered a biopsy to confirm what he suspected: Treatha, who quit smoking the moment she was diagnosed with heart failure, had stage 1 lung cancer.
Once again, she says, she was blessed in that it was detected early.
After weighing her options, Treatha chose to take aggressive action. In February, she was admitted to St. Francis, where Thomas Estep, MD, a thoracic surgeon with Wichita Surgical Specialists, removed the cancerous portion of her lung.
Soon afterward, Treatha was back to championing causes dear to her heart.
She joined the Wichita Public Library board of directors in 2012 and became a fervent advocate for Wichita’s recently opened new downtown library. She resumed raising funds and awareness of sickle cell anemia, a hereditary disease that claimed the lives of three of Treatha’s siblings and her niece. She also took part in a five-year clinical trial so that others might benefit from her experience.
And while she prepared to put up a fight should there be another round, she hoped and prayed that her health issues were behind her.
But that was not to be.
In May 2016, a PET scan revealed nine non-cancerous nodules on Treatha’s thyroid glands. After undergoing outpatient surgery to remove the nodules, she began feeling light-headed and weak. By nightfall, she once again turned to Via Christi for care as her husband rushed her to the St. Francis, where she was admitted and treated for post-operative complications related to her heart failure.
During her stay, she was treated by Samer Antonios, MD, an internal medicine specialist who serves as chief medical officer for Via Christi’s Wichita hospitals.
“He held my hands in his, listened to my whole story and explained what was going on with me in ways I could understand,” says Treatha. Dr. Antonios called Treatha after her discharge to see how she was doing and to let her know that he had arranged a home visit by a Via Christi Heart Failure Clinic nurse practitioner.
She began receiving care at the Heart Failure Clinic, where a multidisciplinary team developed a plan for her ongoing recovery, which included participation in Via Christi’s Cardiac Rehabilitation program. Since completing the 37-session program in April, Treatha has begun working out three times a week with exercise specialist Daniel Fowler at Via Christi’s Cancer Wellness Center.
Going the distance
With the help of the Cardiac Rehab team and the Cancer Wellness program, Treatha says, “My energy and attitude is back to where it once was and I’m engaged again.”
In addition to joining Via Christi at the Wichita Heart Walk & F.A.S.T. 5K on June 9, Treatha recently accepted an appointment to the Sedgwick County Mental Health Advisory Board and to the board of Pure and Simple Health Education, which encourages teens to make healthy choices.
“I now know my limits as well as what I need to do for me,” she says. “But these are important projects that I believe I need to do for my community and can do with the support of my family, church and Via Christi.”