On Her Own Journey, Lucy Bernas Helps Others Heal

Lucy Bernas came to Mayo Clinic for healing. Along the way, she’s proven to be a healer herself.

When surgery to treat sinus cancer left Lucy Bernas unable to eat or speak, she came to Mayo Clinic for healing. Along the way, she’s proven to be a healer herself.

Anyone who doubts that food is love hasn't met Lucy Bernas. "I don't use a recipe, I use my heart," Lucy tells us of the meals and treats she makes for family and friends, including the many (many) new friends she's made at Hope Lodge in Rochester, where she stays while undergoing treatment at Mayo Clinic. "Cooking is my therapy," she tells us. "To see people eating my food lifts me up." It has that effect on others as well.

Back in 2014, what Lucy thought was a sinus infection turned out to be stage 3 sinus cancer. Doctors near her home in North Dakota told Lucy her treatment would include radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. And that it would forever alter her face. After four surgeries, the treatment did that and more, leaving Lucy with a tracheostomy to help her breathe and a feeding tube to provide nutrition. She could no longer eat or speak. That was particularly difficult for Lucy, who attended culinary arts school and has, she tells us, "the gift of gab." So in early 2015, Lucy decided to seek a second opinion at Mayo Clinic.

At Mayo, a team of surgeons came up with a plan to reconstruct Lucy's face using bone from her hip and a blood vessel from her arm. It would be a slow and complicated process, they told her. And it would require Lucy to spend a lot of time in Rochester. She decided to move forward with the plan, even though it meant being away from her family and home.

Soon, Lucy would find new versions of both at Hope Lodge. "It was a godsend for me," Lucy says of the place she now calls her second home. She tells us she and the other residents, all receiving cancer treatment themselves, shared their joys and concerns, often over the breakfast or dinner table. And often over food Lucy had prepared.

When she was anxious or unable to sleep, Lucy would head to one of eight kitchens in Hope Lodge. Sometimes, she tells us, she'd "go to town" organizing the pantries or cupboards. Other times, she'd make cinnamon rolls or invite others to join her in an eggroll wrapping session. And always, Lucy put her heart into everything she did. "She wasn't only healing herself with her cooking skills, she was healing others," Jammie McGuire, senior manager at Hope Lodge, tells us.

Lucy's healing touch worked in other ways as well. When someone at the lodge needed cheering up, it was often Lucy who stepped in. And when one of her new friends rang the bell to signal the end of radiation treatment, Lucy was there to help celebrate. "I can't even guess at how many [bell ringings] she attended," Nancy Heinzelman, patient experience coordinator in Radiation Oncology at Mayo Clinic, tells us.

There's been plenty of celebrating for Lucy, too. Since beginning treatment at Mayo Clinic, she's regained the ability to speak and can now eat soft foods. She tells us there are more treatments ahead in what she calls her "beautification journey." Which means there will be more bell ringings, more cinnamon rolls, and more Lucy around Rochester. And that is a beautiful thing for her new friends and family.

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