Teresa (Kantorowski) Rose and Penny (Bala) Kungle were active women in the prime of their lives when they found themselves confronting unspeakably traumatic diagnoses.
Few folks knew the full extent of their imponderable journeys until a much-earned recognition landed one in the spotlight and a burgeoning fundraiser was in the works for the other.
While sharing their stories may not effect a different outcome for either; my hope is that they will serve as never-to-be-forgotten, teachable moments for the rest of us: If your health is relatively good, make an effort do what you can whenever you can for others who find themselves in a different boat.
Extremely rare condition
Penny (Bala) Kungle never spent time in the military; yet, some see her as a prisoner of war of sorts.
Only there is no truce or release on the horizon to be negotiated as she’s being held captive by two inescapable enemies: multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Both are debilitating, neurological diseases, but while MS can be managed, ALS is far less merciful.
In spite of it all, Penny remains stoic. That’s not to say she doesn’t have moments of despair.
I met the 52-year-old Copley Township woman a few weeks after learning she had been tapped for induction into the Copley High School Athletic Hall of Fame, receiving a meritorious award of distinction. She was just that powerful of an athlete. She lettered in volleyball, basketball and track, leading the volleyball team her senior year to All-Suburban honors and to a 7-0 conference record and Suburban League title. That makes what happened even more unfathomable.
She was blindsided by her first enemy — MS — when she was 22, a college student at the University of Akron, where she played volleyball and worked at Halle’s department store. “All of a sudden, I kept tripping on the [store’s] carpeting,” she said. “Then I noticed my leg was numb up to the knee. The next day, it was up to my hip. Soon my back started to go.”
Dr. Harvey M. Friedman, an Akron neurologist, told her it was MS.
For a time, the numbness subsided. But that was short-lived; it was replaced by tingling. After a few weeks in the hospital, she again seemed to be better. Until the next flare-up, that is.
Married to her high school sweetheart, Jeff, she happily went on with her life.
Later she became pregnant. The pregnancy progressed normally but there were complications: “They were supposed to do a C-section but I was left in labor 29 hours … The MS flared up and I went into fetal distress.”
Daughter Brittany — today a 21-year-old college athlete in her own right and a nursing major — arrived healthy.
But Penny had lost control of her arms, a condition that lasted a year.
Life returned to some semblance of normalcy for the stay-at-home mom. Once her daughter was in middle school, Penny became a recess monitor at Copley’s Arrowhead Elementary School. “I loved that job,” she said, returning to thoughts of the past about how she quietly surveyed the athleticism of the children on the playground.
But after years of bending down to tie hundreds of little shoes and zipping and unzipping coats, Penny began having great difficulty getting back up and she noticed her leg dragging more.
“I was sent to the Wellness Center for therapy but I wasn’t getting any better,” she said. “So I was referred to the Oak Clinic for Multiple Sclerosis [in Green], who did all they could.”
An MRI revealed her fifth and sixth vertebrae had shifted and Penny had surgery with the hope that 95 percent of her problems would be better. Not only did the situation become much worse but another surgeon informed her that two of the four screws were put in crooked, so more surgeries followed. “But nothing helped,” Penny railed. “So, my MS doctor suggested steroids. … I was on Tysabri for seven months. A possible side effect could be brain tumors. I still proceeded because I wanted my life back.”
Long story short, a Cleveland Clinic neurologist diagnosed Penny with ALS on Oct. 15, 2011.
She is among only six women in the United States with the dual diagnosis of MS and ALS and the only one ever seen at the Cleveland Clinic.
Penny is helped on her journey by her mother, Barbara Bala, 85, who is there every day, and a team (social worker, home health-care aide and nurses) from Hospice of the Visiting Nurse Service/Akron General Health System.
“Thank God for my good friend Peg Chuparkoff, also a social worker, who has helped me a lot.”
Blinking back tears, Penny talked about when she was able to clean her own home. “Every Thursday and Friday, I would clean from top to bottom. I used to be a cleaning nut, even wiping the hot water tank off and washing inside and outside the cars. I cut the grass, trimmed the shrubs. Now I don’t have strength to pull even new weeds.”
In spite of everything, Penny Kungle vows “to fight as long as I can.”
Fundraiser for patient
Teresa (Kantorowski) Rose, a 1982 Archbishop Hoban High School graduate, was diagnosed last year with Stage IV breast cancer with metastasis to the lung and vertebrae. The diagnosis came a short time after she attended her 30-year class reunion.
The story is much more involved, as shared by classmates Sarah (Horvath) Weber and Marianne Suich.
“After graduating from Hoban in 1982, Teresa joined the Air Force, where she traveled the world and met her husband-to-be Leon Stevens, who also was in the Air Force,” Sarah Weber said. “Soon they married, and Teresa gave birth to their first son, Christopher Corey Stevens, on Jan. 15, 1991. When she was pregnant with their second son, Joshua Kyle, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Teresa received two sessions of chemotherapy before Joshua was born on April 25, 1992 [five weeks early]. Following his birth, Teresa had a bilateral mastectomy and more chemotherapy. Once she recovered, she and her husband focused on raising their two beautiful sons.”
Teresa, by now honorably discharged from the Air Force, home-schooled her boys in Maryland before moving to Tennessee. “Soon after relocating, both sons were diagnosed with cancer within eight months of each other. She spent all of her time with them in the hospital.” Joshua passed away Sept. 18, 2008, of osteosarcoma. Corey, who is 21, has had several recurrences.
Teresa is now divorced. Her cancer is “100 percent service-connected,” said Marianne Suich, chief planner of the fundraiser. “She worked on AWACs in the Gulf War and worked with very high amounts of radiation. This is where she believes the cancer stemmed from. … She also does not have life insurance [because of the early diagnosis of cancer].
“After returning home to Tennessee in July [following the school reunion], Teresa was hospitalized and received news about the status of her cancer battle,” Sarah added. So, Marianne, who tried unsuccessfully to monitor Teresa long distance, moved her to an assisted-living facility in Copley; much of it at her own expense.
Several former classmates — Debbie (Mee) Younkins; Anita (Heyden) and her husband, Marty Waung; and Rachel (Knoderer) Klatt — are frequent visitors at the facility; often coming with food.
Still expenses are mounting. So in the spirit of “that’s what friends are for,” a spaghetti dinner benefit has been set for 5-7 p.m. Saturday at the Summit Wesleyan Church, 2303 S. Main St., Akron, (cost is $7, $5 for children 10 or younger, cash only). “Since she is a veteran, her visits to the local VA hospital have been covered but there are so many things that she needs that are not covered,” Sarah continued.
A few days ago, Teresa was readmitted to the hospital.
“I moved to Vero Beach, Fla., right after high school and was in the Air Force for six years (had my 22nd birthday during basic training),” a more energized Teresa wrote in the class reunion booklet. “ I flew on AWACS and did Air Surveillance, Identification and Communication with the ground units. … I went to survival school in the mountains of Washington state. …
“I subscribe to a higher power than the docs (as an ordained minister with the Universal Light). I will be here as long as I’m supposed to be, doing what I know and learning more along the way.”
For tickets for the dinner, please email email@example.com or call 330-703-2991. A Teresa Rose Benevolent Fund has been set up at Falls Catholic Credit Union, 33 Graham Road, Cuyahoga Falls, OH 44223.
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or firstname.lastname@example.org.