The last time many of us saw Joy Wright was Thursday May 22, at the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Chattanooga. The beloved WRCB national sales manager was being honored with the Silver Medal Award from the American Advertising Federation of Chattanooga. Dozens of her friends, co-workers and family members were on hand to cheer for her, pose for pictures with her, and get a "Joy hug." She was a little frail, walking with the aid of a cane, but still full of joy, no pun intended or needed. She had battled the word she refused to even speak. Cancer had come and gone in various forms over the past four years, but word spread among her friends: it was back with a vengeance. Still, she rallied to attend the event. She looked like a million dollars, gave a moving, funny, eloquent speech with absolutely no notes, and wore a beautiful crown.
She was rarely able to come to work during the past two months, and everyone knew the end was near. Our hallways were quieter, our mood not as bright. As long as she was able, she reported for duty each morning at WRCB. Often, she came to work despite dealing with the pain and side effects that come with cancer and its toxic treatments. She worked as much as she could during the relatively brief, sudden illness that took the life of her husband Rodney last year. In January, she braved the snow to climb the famous WRCB hill, a task that many healthy employees often decline.
At the Ad Club event in May, many of us got to meet Joy’s mother, her sisters and other relatives for the first time. Her beautiful daughter Bianca was there, clinging to her ailing mom, just months after losing her beloved stepfather. It was a day of celebration. Joy had been extremely active in the local club, and was much loved in the advertising community. WRCB’s general manager Tom Tolar was on hand, as was Tom Tarzian, president of WRCB’s parent company Sarkes Tarzian Inc., who drove down from Bloomington, Indiana.
As is the Ad Club’s custom, a funny video was produced, with Joy’s friends "roasting" her and paying tribute to her life and career. Amid all the laughter, we knew, and she knew each moment was precious, and time was short.
On this Monday, July 28, we mourn the loss of our friend Joy, but we celebrate the life she lived, and the joyful memories she gave us. Our thoughts are with Bianca, who has now lost both her mother and her stepfather in a ten-month span; both were only in their forties.
Joy’s lasting image, for those of us who were fortunate enough to know her, is that of a smiling, vivacious lady, full of sass, spunk, and life. Our lives won’t be the same without her. But our lives are better thanks to the positive energy she brought us each day. As I write this on a beautiful, starry night, the sky seems brighter than usual. I’ll bet it’s the reflection from that crown.
Previous story from November 8, 2013:
I just saw my friend and co-worker Joy Wright in the hallway, and as always, my smile came back. We truly have Joy in our hearts at Channel 3. You can’t look at her without smiling. Here, I’ll prove it.
That’s Joy and her husband Rodney. I must tell you their story. It’s a love story that started in the spring of 1998. Chattanooga had a fun yearly event back then called the River Roast, with barbecue and bands on a Saturday night. Joy was in radio at the time, having started at US-101 before moving on to WJTT. She did news and traffic reports, eventually getting into ad sales. At 31 years old, and with a four-year-old daughter, she wasn’t necessarily looking for romance, but a friend spotted a handsome face in the crowd. Rodney was five years younger, but something clicked. "This cougar found her man," Joy says with a laugh.
A few months later they got engaged, and in August 1999 they tied the knot.
Rodney would soon begin working at McKee Bakery, while Joy would join Channel 3, working her way up to national sales manager. Rodney was a loving stepfather to Joy’s daughter Bianca, now a student at UTC. Life was good. Each had been attracted to the other’s smile, and there was so much to smile about.
In early 2011, Joy knew something didn’t feel right. There was pain in her stomach, problems with her gastrointestinal system. Tests revealed it was neuroendocrine cancer, a rare type of cancer that starts in the part of the body where the nervous system and endocrine system work together. It was the first such case doctors at Memorial Hospital had ever treated. She endured several months of radiation and chemotherapy treatments in tandem, and by November she celebrated the happy news of a clear scan. Her hair would grow back, her strength would return, and in 2012 she "started over" with a clean bill of health. Her caregiver, Rodney was overjoyed. 2012 was to be a mighty good year, and it was.
January 17, 2013 was Rodney’s 41st birthday. The Wrights would go out to dinner that night. There was no way of knowing life would never be the same. He began feeling nauseous before going out, and his stomach problems would worsen as the night went on. For the next three weeks, he had little or no appetite, and was diagnosed with a bladder infection. By March, he had lost a lot of weight and felt a blockage near his chest and abdomen. "He would force himself to throw up," Joy said. "That’s the only way he could feel relief."
During most of Rodney’s ordeal, Joy was feeling fine after more than a year in remission. She visited her doctor for a 3-month checkup in February, expecting yet another, "All clear, we’ll see you in three months" report. The doctor found a very small spot on her lung. "Probably nothing to worry about," she was told, "but because of your history, let’s do a biopsy." The tests came back positive. The cancer had returned, and in March Joy resumed chemo treatments.
By late March, Rodney’s condition had worsened. He had lost fifty pounds in less than three months. CT scans revealed gastric cancer, and doctors said surgery couldn’t wait. On Good Friday, they removed half his stomach, and according to Joy, "They thought they got all the cancer. His prognosis was good." There was however, still a lone, small, "suspicious" lymph node. "Let’s keep an eye on that," the doctors told Rodney.
As Rodney began to recover, the focus shifted back to Joy and her rare form of cancer. "We thought my situation was worse, his prognosis was better than mine," she said. They traveled to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where doctors first believed she had been misdiagnosed. They later decided her Chattanooga doctors were right, and the chemo treatments would continue through June. Rodney was eating well again, gaining some weight and getting his strength back. He was taking oral chemo as a precautionary measure, and later began radiation treatments.
In late July, Rodney’s problems intensified. A biopsy revealed two ulcers in his stomach, and doctors soon followed up with a bone scan and PET scan. They found cancer cells related to his previous bout with the disease. He was diagnosed with peritoneal cancer, with symptoms that included severe abdominal pain. The chemo treatments were stepped up.
Soon Rodney was in great pain, and was readmitted to the hospital. Doctors thought it was an infection, treatable with antibiotics. "In a week, he’ll be okay," Joy was told. But he still couldn’t keep food down. On September 30, the oncologist delivered bad news. Rodney was so malnourished, having lost 100 pounds since January, chemo would do more harm than good. "He was in terrible pain, the meds didn’t help," Joy said. "Eventually they were able to better manage his pain, and get him some nutrition, and I got him home October 11th."
At the same time, she noticed some problems with the floor of their home. She thought it would be a simple repair, but when carpet was pulled up, she found a wet spot. Workers were called in, and they found mold everywhere. Cabinets, carpets and floors were pulled up, and soon a major renovation was underway. The house was unfit to live in, so Joy and Rodney moved into a hotel. Two days later he began vomiting again. He was readmitted to the hospital, was soon unresponsive, and on Wednesday October 16, "his heart just gave out," Joy said. "We lost him." The man who had taken such great care of Joy less than two years before, and who tried to guide her through a new round of cancer treatments had lost his own battle at the age of 41.
All this time, Joy had been toughing it out, putting her own problems aside. Out of necessity, her own serious illness had to be put on the back burner. Roles were reversed: she had become Rodney’s primary caregiver. She had some help. "Thank God for my friends and family," she said. I have five siblings, and so many friends, and they made sure I was never alone. They helped so much with trips to the doctor and at the hospital."
Weeks later, she still talks about Rodney in the present tense. "He likes that Tim McGraw song ‘Live Like You’re Dying,’" she’ll say. I tell her I love hearing her refer to Rodney that way, and she says, "I feel like he’s still here, and I’ll see him tonight. He’s still taking care of me."
Joy’s most recent scan, on September 6 revealed no cancer and no tumors. To this day, however there are lingering stomach problems. "I have pancreatitis," she said, "but it’s supposed to go away." Her hair is growing back again, and although her health has improved, there’s the lingering fear of what may be found during those checkups, every three months. Another one is due in December.
Joy has always loved life, but says she sees it all more clearly now. "I’m thankful for every moment. I’m know I’m still here for a reason. I have my faith, I have a purpose. God has been good to me. This has taught me so much patience and compassion. When I hear people complaining about little things, I just look at them and say, you have no idea."
She credits her "work family" for helping make it through life’s storms. "My manager Ralph Flynn, as well as our general manager Tom Tolar, and company president Tom Tarzian have shown such support, generosity, and compassion towards me. I know it is a reflection of God’s love. I weep with gratitude for the cards, talks, and kind gestures. Ronnie Minton made me a "nausea kit" to help me on the tough days. I have to stop naming names, because I have been blessed by so many who have just blanketed me in love. It is because of them, and most importantly, our awesome God that I can see the light."
Joy has been through so much, in such a brief period of time, but she still has that wonderful smile. I asked about her current feelings after her battles with cancer and the loss of Rodney. She said, "Optimistic. Thankful. Scared."