A Breath of Fresh Air for Cancer Patients

A Breath of Fresh Air for Cancer Patients

by Phyl Newbeck

Sometimes things just fall into place for Suzanne Johnson. People show up to help and boats appear on the horizon. That’s why Johnson is confident Healing Winds Vermont, a one-year-old non-profit which takes cancer patients and their loved ones sailing on Lake Champlain, can spawn other sailing non-profits up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Last summer, in its inaugural year, their boat, Jubilee, left its Burlington dock 30 times, providing trips on Lake Champlain for 114 people.

Described by Jubilee Captain Glen Findholt as “a force of nature,” Johnson found a lump in her breast in 2010 and went through a regimen of chemotherapy, radiation, and medication to eradicate the cancerous growth. When she finished treatment, Johnson decided she wanted to do something for others suffering from the disease and began searching for a way to give back.

Kathy McBeth of the Vermont Cancer Center told Johnson that the University of Vermont Medical Center used to charter commercial sailboats on Lake Champlain for cancer patients. Having grown up sailing, Johnson thought it would be great to do something similar with a non-profit group and began to do research. Eventually, she found a 12-year-old organization called Sail4Cancer based in England which uses privately owned yachts. When Johnson called, Sail4Cancer sent an ambassador to Vermont to meet with her.

Johnson felt strongly that her as-yet-to-be-created non-profit should have its own signature boat. In the fall of 2013, the uncle of a man she had just started dating surprised her by offering his vessel which was short enough for a mooring, large enough to sleep five and easy to sail. He told her it was hers if she was willing to come and get it from its Maryland mooring. “Sailing is a great option for patients who can’t paddle, fly-fish or ski,” said Johnson. “They are sitting comfortably outside, moving through space and feeling the healing powers of the water.”

A full-time job as a real estate agent didn’t stop Johnson from spending the winter of 2013 creating the framework for Healing Winds Vermont. As she began to look for people to serve on the board of directors and volunteer their time, she was given Glen Findholt’s name. Findholt, who used to have a charter sailing business, had just lost his wife, Marie, to cancer. While Johnson had experience as a cancer patient, Findholt could provide his understanding of the role of caregiver. Not only did Findholt agree to serve on the board but he helped refurbish the boat and volunteered to work as lead captain.

Last summer while she was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, Stephanie Caffin of Cabot, learned about Healing Winds Vermont and immediately realized it would be a great respite from the constant talk about drugs and medication. Caffin’s husband and step-daughter joined her for a day out on the Jubilee. “It was so much fun being out on the water,” she said. “It was freeing.” Another breast cancer patient, Karen Derrick of North Fayston, grew up sailing and was thrilled to have the opportunity to get out on the water with her husband while she was undergoing treatment. “It’s a hard feeling to describe,” she said “but you feel so far away from everything. Treatment is all about hospitals and getting poked and prodded so to get away from all that and be in a secluded environment is wonderful. There’s something about being under sail where you forget your worries and there’s something really special about Suzanne and Glen.” Derrick enjoyed her experience so much that she wants to volunteer with Healing Winds Vermont.

This summer, the non-profit will be affiliated with several medical institutions and Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, so their goal is 300 guests. The experience has been so therapeutic that the family of one patient who has since died asked that in lieu of flowers, contributions be sent to Healing Winds Vermont in her name. “That’s a full circle,” said Johnson “and it will keep happening.”

Findholt finds setting sail with Healing Winds Vermont to be incredibly rewarding. “These patients and their caregivers are very life affirming,” he said. “I come home tired at night but feeling really good.” Johnson hopes to continue taking patients out for years to come. “It’s truly magical because you cast off your lines and you can take a deep breath,” she said. “There’s something about detaching from land that allows you to be in the moment.”
Visit http://healingwindsvt.org and learn how to nominate someone for a sail on the Jubilee this summer.