Courage Lives On: Tribute to an Angel

By Contributing Writer - May 16, 2020

On an average day, more than 200 patients will pass through the Diagnostic Imaging waiting room on Moffitt’s Magnolia campus. Some are seeking a diagnosis for what ails them. Others are regular visitors here, awaiting tests to determine whether their cancer is responding to treatment. All of them share the same sense of anxiety.

On Thursdays, Joe Gallagher is a calming presence escorting patients back to the CT Scan Unit. He knows many of the “regulars” by name and treats them like old friends. After all, many of them are; Joe’s put in more than 2,700 hours since he began volunteering here in March of 2009.

Joe and wife Colleen signed up together as Moffitt volunteers, thankful for the surgeons who’d saved her life when Colleen was diagnosed with fallopian cancer in 2008. It was not her first brush with cancer: diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, Colleen survived with chemo and a double mastectomy. But this time, the battle would be long and hard. For 10 years, Colleen’s Moffitt care team always came up with another option whenever Colleen’s cancer progressed.

“She would ask them, ‘What’s the toughest chemo? I want that one.’ It didn’t make any difference how it made her feel,” recalls Joe. “This disease was not going to get the best of her.”

Her goal was always to get back to volunteering in the Breast Imaging Center on Moffitt’s McKinley campus. The women she guided back to changing rooms before their mammograms or biopsies seldom learned about Colleen’s own cancer journey. She was always more focused on hearing their stories and sharing strength that comes from knowing you’re not alone. “Look at these patients here, all facing the same thing,” she’d often tell them. “You can talk to us.”

“She was an angel put on this earth to guide women through cancer with a positive attitude,” says Joe.

Joe Gallagher, volunteer
Joe Gallagher stands in front of a quilt his late wife, Colleen, made for the diagnostic waiting room.

Colleen’s way with patients didn’t go unnoticed, particularly by Dr. Blaise Mooney, a diagnostic radiologist and director of Breast Imaging at Moffitt. Whenever one of Mooney’s patients was struggling emotionally, he’d seek out her help — not realizing how much she would eventually do to help him.

Shortly before Thanksgiving 2013, Mooney got news that a small tumor he’d been battling had morphed into stage four cancer. The biopsy results came on a Monday, Colleen’s volunteer day. “She came into the reading room and said, ‘I heard you got some bad news,’” Mooney recalls. It was only then that he learned what Colleen was going through. “She was the first person to sit down with me and say pull up your bootstraps and fight this thing.”

Subsequent surgery cost Mooney parts of his tongue, jaw and neck that had to be rebuilt with tissue from his leg. Through months of recovery, he read radiologic studies on a home workstation and strove to return to Moffitt.

The day he did, Colleen was there to welcome him with more wisdom. “She said you’ve got this now, and it’s never going to go away. It will always be in the back of your mind. But you can’t let it rule your life,” he recalls. “Use what you’ve learned to help your patients.”

Mooney wasn’t the only team member Colleen cared for. Away from Moffitt, she loved to sew, making custom quilts whenever anyone had a baby, got married or celebrated a major life event. “Every quilt was like a work of art, but also a work of love,” says Jolie Filer, McKinley concierge services coordinator and volunteer liaison for the Breast program. “She’d stitch on the back of each one: Specially made for you by Colleen.”

There was one last quilt on Colleen’s sewing table when her cancer took a turn for the worse last year. She’d designed the ocean scene after Mooney mentioned living in the Caribbean and how much he wanted to share that with his sons. When the time came for Colleen to enter hospice care, she turned to her best friend and fellow quilter, Judy Woerner, to finish it for her.

The tears and stories flowed when Joe and daughter Kathleen surprised Mooney with the treasured quilt last October, just three months after Colleen passed away. “I had no idea she’d been making it for me,” Mooney says, “Just the power of it all — it blew me away.”

Joe Gallagher, Jolie Filer, Dr. Blaise Mooney
Left to right: Joe Gallagher, Jolie Filer and Dr. Blaise Mooney display the quilt made for Dr. Mooney by Joe's late wife Colleen, a longtime Moffitt volunteer.

Mooney and the Breast Imaging team made sure some of that power remains at McKinley. Another beautiful quilt Colleen made for the diagnostic waiting room has been framed along with her picture and story for patients to read while they wait. “The idea was to have Colleen present in that room,” says Mooney, “to keep shepherding our patients — and me — along our journey.”

Back on Moffitt’s Magnolia campus, Joe keeps shepherding patients back to the CT Scan unit each week. He knows it’s what Colleen would have wanted, just as she wanted to be buried in her Moffitt Volunteer uniform. “I keep on volunteering in tribute to her, to my angel,” Joe says with a catch in his voice. “And as long as I keep waking up, I’ll be here every Thursday. It’s the least I can do, considering all Moffitt did for her.”


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