A Blue Angel
Mallori Thompson, administrative director of Cancer Support and Survivorship at Duke, keeps a coin-sized metal angel at her desk. When she feels frustrated, she rubs it. “It reminds me of why I’m doing what I’m doing,” she says.
The angel was a gift from Liz Menges, whose son Bobby Menges was diagnosed with cancer for the third time in 2016 when he was 19 years old and a freshman at Duke University. Thompson met Bobby only once, in 2017, for an hour. But their conversation shapes what she does to this day.
Bobby had that kind of effect on people. “He wasn’t the type to go to the hospital and get his treatment and leave,” says Liz. “He would butt in, and say ‘Who are you, and how can I help, and how can I get involved?’”
After a medical leave at home in New York, Bobby returned to school. He completed his sophomore year, taking a full load of classes and playing in the jazz band, all while receiving treatment at Duke.
In September 2017 he passed away from the disease. But he is still changing the experience of cancer for other young people, through the Duke Teen and Young Adult Oncology Program, a student fundraiser he inspired, and a foundation that his family started in his memory.
“He can’t be a Blue Devil anymore, but he can be a blue angel.”
In 2017, Thompson, a medical and family therapist, was forming plans for a support program at Duke for teens and young adults with cancer. The pediatric social workers and physicians all told her, “You need to talk to Bobby.”
Bobby had received cancer care at several different places at different times. He was struck by the lack of any formal support services for teens and young adults. Kids had clowns and face painting to distract them. Older adults had self-image services and wigs. But none of what was offered seemed appropriate for people his age, who are just beginning to live independently, think about careers, and decide who they are going to be.
Thompson still has her notes from their conversation. “He talked about peer connection being really important, but not through traditional support groups, but by feeling like you’re doing something that a young adult his age would be doing anyway,” she says. Drawing on those ideas, for their first event the Duke Teen and Young Adult Oncology Program tackled an escape room together. They have also gone rock climbing, done yoga, and tried Krav Maga. Right now, their meetups are virtual because of COVID-19.
After Bobby died, Liz found Thompson’s business card in Bobby’s wallet. She had met Thompson only for a second. But she remembered how excited her son had been about his conversation with her. “He told me about all the ideas that he had shared with Mallori. As soon as I saw her card, I knew this was something that he would want us to support.”
She called Thompson, and that conversation led to a relationship that has resulted in the family’s foundation making two significant gifts to Duke programs that support teen and young adults with cancer. The foundation, called I’m Not Done Yet, is named for Bobby’s desire to always do more. “Even in the last days of his life when he wasn’t feeling good, he would always get up and do what he needed to do,” Liz says.
The I’m Not Done Yet Foundation gift funds a peer-to-peer support program for teens and young adults with chronic disease and their parents, called “Bobby’s Coaches,” an effort led by Gary Maslow, MD, in the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Bobby had served as a mentor for teen patients with chronic health issues through the ATLAS program in psychiatry, and Bobby’s Coaches grew out of that.
The foundation’s gift also provides financial assistance to help young cancer patients pay for fertility preservation services. “Bobby had so much chemotherapy and radiation for so long at such a young age. But talking about fertility was never on anyone’s radar,” Liz says. “By his third bout with cancer, he was aware of the effects the chemotherapy was having on his body and fertility. It made him so mad that no one had talked to him about this earlier.”
Before the gift from I’m Not Done Yet, it was difficult to even mention fertility preservation services to young patients because the services are so expensive, Thompson says. “Now we have an option for people who normally couldn’t afford it.” Because the service is now affordable for more people, a patient navigator discusses it with every teen and young adult cancer patient at Duke. “Mallori and her team figured out a way to take our ideas and make them work in ways that are even better than we intended,” Liz says.
Bobby’s passion for helping others lives on among Duke students, through an annual Shave and Buzz fundraising event that he and other students started during his freshman year. To date, the events have raised almost $450,000 for adolescent and young adult cancer services at Duke.
Students shaved their heads again this year via a virtual event on March 27, 2021, even though those who organized this year’s event never even met Bobby. They exceeded their fundraising goal, raising almost $118,000. “These Duke students are amazing,” Liz says. “Their involvement and engagement have really amplified our efforts.”
Bobby’s love for Duke is one reason why she chose an angel as the symbol that she gives out in his memory. “He can’t be a Blue Devil anymore,” she says, “but he can be a blue angel.”
March 22, 2021
By Angela Spivey