News

Thankful for the giving

By MIKE HALLIDAY

The Mirror

As Tammy Sandstrom sat at the intersection of South 320th Street and 11th Place South, Federal Way School bus no. 158 made a right turn out of the district’s transportation center.

That was Sandstrom’s bus, and watching it leave was hard for her to watch.

Since late August, Sandstrom hasn’t been driving a school bus like she has for the last 13 years, because she is fighting cancer. Yet, her co-workers who became her friends over the years haven’t forgotten her. They surprised her early this month with a check for $4,120 from an auction they held in October. More than 100 people met at the school district’s transportation office to bid on items, from a round of golf at Twin Lakes Golf and Country Club and Seattle Seahawks tickets, getaways to cabins in the mountains and the ocean, to homemade pies –– one of which sold for $68.

“I’ve never felt so loved,” said Sandstrom with tears in her eyes days after getting the check. Her friends told her to use it however she wanted.

In October 2003, Sandstrom had flu-like symptoms and difficulty swallowing. She went to the doctor, telling him she felt a lump in her throat. He prescribed an anti-acid, thinking acid reflux was irritating her esophagus. But seven days later, she was still feeling ill and went back. The doctor performed an endoscopy and found a tumor on her esophagus where it met her stomach.

News like that “pulls the carpet out” from under you, said Sandstrom, 47.

She has been married to her high school sweetheart, Pat, for 25 years and they have two children and two grandchildren.

Lynn Morrow said she was “devastated” when Sandstrom told her the diagnosis. The two have known each other since Sandstrom joined the district.

Morrow went to some of Sandstrom’s doctor appointments for support. She and other friends of Sandstrom’s made sure she got out of the house and took her hiking, on walks and were there to give hugs, listen and encourage her.

Kerry Bailey, Edye Chamberlin and Lorena Denney took Sandstrom to dinner and to see a play.

“Tammy is one of the nicest people in the whole world,” Chamberlin said.

The Federal Way Public Schools bus drivers are a tight group. Some of their families have driven buses in the district for generations. As one said, if a person comes in without family, working there they soon become part of an extended family.

Sandstrom’s cancer was initially treated with radiation and chemotherapy to reduce the tumor. She worked when she could and credits her colleagues and boss for filling in when she couldn’t make it.

Some people asked why she continued to work, but it was important to Sandstrom.

“How could I not?” she asked. “You have to live, you can’t curl up in a ball and give up.”

On March 1, 2004, surgeons at the University of Washington removed Sandstrom’s esophagus and nearby lymph nodes. They stretched a part of her stomach to replaced the removed tissue.

It took time to recover. Her sister stayed in the hospital with her nine days, taking care of her.

Afterward, Sandstrom continued chemotherapy to make sure the cancer was gone, and by November last year she was considered free. She returned to work in June for a few weeks to keep her bus-driving license active, and she spent the summer continuing recuperation.

Her friends still came to visit her, going on more hikes and walks and to car shows. Morrow and a few others started planning the auction.

It took about a month, with a meeting each week. Bus drivers and their families donated items or services to the auction, and one driver acted as the auctioneer. School Board member Tom Madden donated a round of golf and the use of a cabin. A couple auctioned off a Seahawks game. Another driver and her husband auctioned off a gourmet meal complete with a menu. Sandstrom didn’t know what was going on and wasn’t invited to the auction. Her friends wanted to surprise her.

By the time the auction was held, Sandstrom had learned the cancer was back. In late August, as she planned to go back to driving, she noticed it was becoming difficult for her to swallow.

“I just knew something wasn’t right,” she said.

She went through more chemotherapy and a second dose of radiation to keep the tumor, which is now in her stomach, from growing larger.

The treatment option is surgery on her stomach, but it’s a “big surgery,” as Sandstrom puts it. She admits to being scared, but it doesn’t get her down.

“Not all bad has come from this,” she said. Many wonderful people have come into her life since she started fighting the cancer, including folks at the treatment center she goes to. Even people she hasn’t seen in years have contacted her, she said.

And her friends have kept supporting her. On Nov. 2, Sandstrom got a call from one of them asking that she come by the “bus barn” office. She went in the morning, when most of the drivers had finished their morning runs. Cindy Wendland, her boss, gave her a basket of flowers and a card that had the check from the auction.

“I was speechless,” Sandstrom said. “How do you thank someone for that”?

Included with the check and flowers was a stuffed bus –– No. 158.

Staff writer Mike Halliday: 925-5565, mhalliday@fedwaymirror.com

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