By Sara Bondell
Volunteer Ken Susalla is a familiar face around Moffitt Cancer Center, offering words of encouragement to patients and their families. But his support isn’t confined to the hospital’s walls, it’s gone cross country. Susalla helped one man when he needed it the most, from more than 1,000 miles away.
Four years after he beat tongue cancer, Susalla’s wife, Marlys, was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He switched gears from patient to caretaker and was by Marlys’s side until she passed seven months later in November 2011.
Susalla heard about Imerman Angels, a global non-profit organization that matches “mentor angels” to support individuals, survivors and family members experiencing similar challenges with cancer. He thought his experiences could make him a good mentor for a patient or a caretaker, and submitted an application. One day, he got a call.
Ohio resident Glen Whipple’s life changed forever in late 2017 when his wife of 50 years, Cheryl, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was overwhelmed with thoughts and decisions—a funeral, bills, companionship and even cooking meals for one. He wrote it all down, but didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.
“When my wife was ill, she was surrounded by support groups,” said Whipple. “I am giving all this care and I am looking around going, ‘Who is taking care of me?’”
One day a nurse mentioned Imerman Angels, and Whipple signed up. He was matched with a mentor and picked up the phone to call a man in Florida named Ken Susalla.
Susalla and Whipple describe their connection as “immediate.” It was exactly what Whipple needed.
“It was an unbelievable help,” said Whipple. “I didn’t even know what I wanted or needed and when we got connected I realized what I needed was someone I could talk with about my inner-most fears and concerns and hopes.”
Whipple was able to count on Susalla through his wife’s treatment, move to hospice care and death in March of 2018. “I talked to Ken about things I have never before and never since talked about with anyone,” he said. That’s because he felt comfortable with Susalla; their phone relationship offered a layer of confidentiality Whipple didn’t feel in other support groups. Susalla was always there to listen, offer assurance, share his experiences and give suggestions.
“I could tell him everything and anything and I wasn’t going to run into him at the mall the next day, or church on Sunday, or the movie theater,” said Whipple.
The phone calls didn’t just help Whipple. Susalla began to realize how therapeutic the phone conversations were for him, even years after his own wife had passed. Conversations that started in tears ended with laughter, and both agree they could help transform each other’s moods on a bad day.
“I was amazed at how much talking to him helped me,” said Susalla. “I didn’t realize he helped me as much as I helped him.”
After talking on the phone for more than a year, the pair decided it was time to meet. Whipple’s cycling club was planning a trip to Florida and he set aside a day to travel to Moffitt. Earlier this month, the two men saw each other for the first time. They hugged, looking like new acquaintances but feeling like old friends.
Susalla and Whipple aren’t the only Imerman Angels success story. In 2018, 173 Moffitt patients and caregivers asked for support through the program and 36 signed up to be mentors, making Moffitt the top referrer in the country. The hospital continues to partner with the organization to match as many patients and caregivers as possible. Imerman Angels provides screening and training for all peer mentors and tries to match them with Moffitt patients and caregivers first.
This March—the first anniversary of his wife’s death—Whipple says he is going to sign up to be a mentor. He says he hopes he can offer others what Susalla offered him: a reassuring voice on the other end of the line.
Moffitt patients and caregivers who wish to participate in the Imerman Angels program can access an application here.