Like a Capra film, Judy Marsh story inspires cheers


November 29, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Judy Marsh's story has the feel of an old Frank Capra movie. You want to stand up and cheer, not only for her, but for people tapping into a place in their hearts they hadn't even suspected was there.

As this is written, Marsh has left her home in Pasadena to get treatment for breast cancer at Duke University Medical Center. It's a new procedure, called an autologous bone marrow transplant, and it's staggeringly expensive: $96,000 just to walk in the door, and about $56,000 more when you leave.

It was Judy Marsh's friends -- and lots of people who never even met her -- who got her in the door when the health insurers turned their backs on her.

First the health insurers said they'd pay for the treatment, and then they said they wouldn't. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking away Marsh's life. While Blue Cross of North Carolina and the Federal Employee Program shifted back and forth -- and still haven't made up their minds -- Marsh's friends in Anne Arundel County began appealing for help.

Churches have had special offerings. Cookie's, a restaurant on Mountain Road, held a spaghetti dinner that raised $10,000. Businesses have donated gift certificates for pizzas, flowers, dinners.

There's a dance scheduled for tomorrow night at Michael's, on Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, with 1,000 tickets already sold at $10 a head and more orders coming in daily.

And for weeks, as the news has spread, there have been the little donations, a dollar here, another five or ten there, the bulk of it from strangers who have been touched by Marsh's fight for life while the insurance bureaucrats slowly ponder what to do.

(The address for contributions is: Judy Marsh, P.O. Box 118, Pasadena 21122)

''You know what all of this has taught me?'' Virginia Zimmerman said yesterday, as she rushed about trying to pick up more donations to try to keep Judy Marsh's hopes alive. ''I could tell you what it's taught me, but I'm gonna cry if I do.''

There's been a lot of that lately. A few weeks ago, they had a basketball game at Northeast High School to raise money for Marsh. About 400 people jammed into the place, and at halftime Marsh came out and stood at midcourt, her smile dazzling, and she put everybody away.

''The last time I was in chemotherapy,'' she told the hushed crowd, ''a friend of mine said, 'You know, we're really the lucky ones because we can see all the love and goodness in people.' And I'm witnessing that right now.''

There wasn't a dry eye in the place. Keeping Marsh alive has become a kind of crusade all over Anne Arundel County and beyond. Partly, it's a tribute to Marsh and her husband, Roland, who are semilegendary for the help they've given others through the years.

And partly, it's people revolted by the bad deal she seems to have gotten from health insurers, who first said she would be covered and then, just days before she was to report to Duke University Medical Center for treatment, wrote to say she wouldn't be and apologized for any ''inconvenience,'' as her life ebbed away.

''I'll tell you what this has taught me,'' Virginia Zimmerman is saying now. ''It's given me renewed faith in mankind. I'm not an emotional person, but when people come up to you and give whatever money they have in their pockets, well . . .''

Enough money came in so that, two days ago, Marsh and her husband walked into the Duke hospital and handed over two checks totaling $96,000.

And yesterday, Marsh, who's battled cancer for two years now, began the first part of the autologous bone marrow treatments, where healthy bone marrow is taken out of her, then frozen, and she is given high doses of chemotherapy -- the equivalent of five months' worth in just four days.

The idea is to burn up the remaining bone marrow in her body -- and with it, all the cancer cells. Then doctors infuse the bone marrow they had frozen back into her system and let it regenerate.

''Why Judy Marsh?'' Ron Serbicki asked yesterday, while preparing for tomorrow night's dance. ''I think people want to help her because she and Roland are the kind of people always helping others.''

''What kind of help?'' Virginia Zimmerman said. ''Like, two different times, they took high school students into their home because they had no place else to live. One boy, his family moved out of state in his senior year and he wanted to graduate. When he got married later, Judy and Roland bought his bride the wedding gown and had the reception at their house.

''Here's another thing. They go caroling every Christmas. One year, this new family moved into the neighborhood, and Judy said, 'Let's be sure to hit this family.' The family came to the door. Their little boy said, 'We just moved in and we couldn't even get a tree.'

''Well, Roland and Judy had just built a deck in back of their house, and they had a decorated tree on it. They didn't say a word to anybody, they just went back to their house, unplugged the tree, and took it over to that family.''

They looked at these strangers and tried to help. And that's what all these other strangers are trying to do now for Judy Marsh: give a little help to someone in trouble, and feel pretty good about themselves in the process.

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