On Saturday, Aug. 17, hundreds of motorcyclists, cyclists, and runners/walkers will take to the streets of the Randolph area for the Last Mile Ride. The ride raises money for special services for Gifford Medical Center patients in advanced illness and at the end of life.
This is one patient’s story.
A native of Waitsfield, Kevin Pearce was born in Vermont in 1960. He moved to Massachusetts with his family when he was just 3. He grew up in Charlemont and Ashfield, Mass., dropping out of high school to work on a potato farm during a time when dyslexia was less understood and Kevin found himself labeled as “dumb” for his inability to read.
He went on to run heavy equipment, assembling and disassembling ski area chair lifts in Massachusetts, until tragedy brought him back to Vermont.
Kevin had been married, divorced, was engaged, and moving in with his fiancée when she was killed in an automobile accident by a drunk driver on her way to bring her final carload of belongings to what was to be their shared home.
Immediately following the funeral, Kevin packed a bag and took a bus to his native Vermont.
It was 2004 and Kevin moved in with his brother, Fred, of Williamstown and went to work for first the Williamstown schools as a janitor and bus driver for special needs students and then, beginning in 2007, as a maintenance man and custodian for Second Spring, a recovery and treatment facility in Williamstown.
It was there that Kevin met Shelly Blakeney, then the cook at Second Spring. At first they were co-workers. Soon they shared a horrible tragedy.
Shelly’s fiancé was killed in January of 2008 in a car crash in Braintree. Another car swerved into his lane, striking him head-on, according to police reports.
“I went to talk to him (Kevin) and it brought up all his grief because he had never dealt with it,” Shelly recalls.
Their work sent them to counseling. One day as they left separate counseling sessions, Kevin invited Shelly for coffee. They talked and she suggested dinner. He accepted but then was so nervous he cancelled at the last minute.
Eventually, he got over his nerves and the pair – brought together by common loss – started dating. Later that year in a small ceremony, they married.
The pair was fairly inseparable.
A gentle giant of a man, Kevin became the step-father to Shelly’s two children, Samantha and Blake, in addition to his step children from his first marriage. Kevin and Shelly had bought a home together off Route 12 in Randolph, did foster care, and performed odd jobs together on the weekends – often for free. They’d help a single mother in need with a home repair and cater weddings for the cost of the food.
If the alarm went off in the night at the local convenience store Shelly managed in more recent years, Kevin went with her. If the alarm sounded at Second Spring, it was Shelly who went with Kevin. “We were best buddies. We were always together,” Shelly recalls.
There were a few exceptions.
Always shy but yet talkative, Kevin got a coffee each morning at Cumberland Farms with a group of guys. He visited yard sales, bartering and, to Shelly’s dismay, “hoarding.” “If it’s free, it’s for me” was a beloved motto.
He rode motorcycles and built furniture. “He had never done woodworking. I bought him a saw. He would get a magazine in the mail. He’d look at something (pictured in the magazine) and say ‘I’m going to go build that,’ and he would.” The family’s dining room table and chairs are but one example.
And he was a student at Central Vermont Adult Basic Education in Barre. Kevin had learned to read as a dyslexic and was on his way to earning his GED. He encouraged others to improve their reading skills and was invited to go to Washington, D.C., as part of an adult learner leadership conference. The May trip included breakfasts with both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
“He was so proud,” says Shelly. “He told everyone.”
He never got to make the trip.
In mid-March, Kevin became plagued with horrible back pain. The pain was high, between his shoulders. The first thought was that he had a herniated disc. He was put on muscle relaxers, and when those didn’t work, pain killers.
The pain continued. He was so agonized, he couldn’t sleep.
On April 3, he was hospitalized at Gifford for pain management. A CT scan the next day showed a fracture in his back. Further testing, including additional imaging, blood work, and a bone biopsy, revealed an unexpected and shocking diagnosis.
Kevin had lung cancer that had metastasized into his ribs, spine, and liver.
He was given nine to 18 months to live.
He made it just three.
Those three months were spent in and out of the hospital. A radiologist at Gifford put cement in Kevin’s spine to successfully relieve the pain of the fracture. He had radiation therapy at Central Vermont Medical Center on his spine and lungs. And he had hospice care on and off.
“They told him it was just a matter of time,” Shelly recalls.
On June 23, he was moved to the Garden Room, a special suite at Gifford for end-of-life patients.
Shelly was there every day along with many other family members from out-of-state and with-in.
On the third Saturday of each August, a charity motorcycle ride – and now a cyclist ride and 5K – raises funds for patients like Kevin.
Last Mile Ride funds helped support some of Kevin’s family’s food and travel costs. Kevin benefited from massages, both at home and in the hospital, for pain management, music therapy, as well as Reiki from volunteers. “It made a huge difference in his pain level,” Shelly recalls of the alternative therapies, offered for free thanks to funds raised by the ride.
As the days passed with family gathered in the Garden Room at an ailing Kevin’s side, it soon became apparent that Kevin was holding on until his beloved granddaughter Layla’s first birthday in September.
Kevin was suffering. Palliative care physician Dr. Jonna Goulding suggested an early (or “fake”) first birthday party. “Why couldn’t any of us have thought it?” says Shelly, wowed by the idea and the memories of the day.
Last Mile Ride funds provided the family a gift card to Shaw’s. They bought birthday cake, snacks, and decorations and raided a local dollar store for impromptu gifts for the “birthday” girl. They held the party in the large living room of Gifford’s adjoining nursing home, the Menig Extended Care Facility. Again thanks to the Last Mile Ride, photographer Janet Miller captured images from the day and provided them to the family as keepsakes.
On July 3 at 5:30 p.m., Kevin and Shelly talked by phone as Kevin ate dinner in the Garden Room.
When Shelly arrived a half hour later at 6 p.m., Kevin was unconscious.
Family gathered at his bedside. At about midnight, Shelly started sending family home, sensing Kevin wanted to die alone.
At 3:30 a.m., only Shelly remained. “I told him it was time for him to join (his late fiancée), and that the kids and I would be OK. That’s when he finally gave in.”
Kevin died on Independence Day. He was 52.
Now Shelly and her family are giving back to the event that helped provide Kevin comfort in his final weeks.
“He said that Gifford was the best place in the world. He loved (palliative care physician) Cristine Maloney. He called her ‘the red head.’ Linda Warner was his favorite LNA. (Nurse and fellow motorcycle enthusiast) Shane (Parks) was his buddy. Shane was coming every day when he wasn’t working just to say ‘hi,’” Shelly recalls, noting palliative care nurse John Young was another favorite.
In years past, the family would watch the Last Mile Ride together from the tailgate of their truck. “It was so cool to just watch them go by,” Shelly recalls.
This year, Shelly, her daughter, mother, aunt, and a friend are all volunteering at the ride on Saturday, Aug. 17. Kevin’s brother and his family, along with other community members, are riding in Kevin’s memory.
“This year will be very emotional,” says Shelly, whose family is striving to move forward by helping to raise money for others in life’s last mile.
There is still time to join the Last Mile Ride.
The ride is an 87-mile motorcycle ride, 38-mile cycle ride and 5K fun run/walk. Registrations are accepted up to and on the day of the event. The walk begins at 8:30 a.m. at the hospital, with registration starting at 8 a.m. The cycle and motorcycle rides leave at 10 a.m., with registration starting at 8:30 a.m. Community members unable to participate are encouraged to line the event’s routes to offer support.
Call (802) 728-2284 or visit www.giffordmed.org to learn more or sign-up.