Penny Pfeiffer stops at the nurses' station and makes a request of anyone nearby: Stop and give me 10 squats. Or arm circles. Or desk pushups. And if they're not busy, they do.
"We've had people in scrubs and people in heels joining in," Penny says of the impromptu workout sessions that "started as a joke." But the exercises — and the laughter that accompanied them — proved such good medicine that they've become a regular part of Penny's routine, and a way to keep her spirits up while she receives chemotherapy treatment at Mayo Clinic. Along the way, they've brightened many other people's spirits as well. "I try to keep as positive as possible," Penny tells us. "There's no reason not to make the best of it. We got lemons, so we're going to make lemonade."
Penny's lemons came in the form of a rare cancer: Ewing sarcoma, stage IV. The diagnosis "tipped my husband and I over," Penny says. "Life turned upside down." Treatment began quickly. She had a toe amputated and then part of one of her lungs removed. Now, she's completing 14 sessions of chemotherapy. Each requires a three- to five-day hospital stay, taking Penny away from her Marquette, Iowa, home and routine.
But there's a part of that routine she brought with her to Rochester. "Before my surgeries, I was working out every day," Penny says. It was a habit that made her feel better physically and mentally. And Penny wasn't going to let cancer change that. In the hospital, she began walking around the unit, collecting both steps and new friends along the way.
"She's inspired other patients to walk more," Lisa Walmar, a nurse on the unit, tells us. "Penny is always smiling and having fun, and that is contagious. It cheers everyone up when they see patients that are smiling and friendly with everyone." Penny is "always happy, even when dealing with some of the side effects of chemotherapy," Walmar says.
Those side effects have included fatigue, which has forced Penny to alter, but not abandon, her workout goals. "At first I was aiming for 10,000 steps every day," she tells us. "I made it quite a few days. But the chemo has made me weaker. I went down to 8,000, then 6,000. Now I do 3,000 steps a day, whether I'm in or out of the hospital."
That determination has been a source of encouragement for those around her. "Penny shows us how you can always keep going and pushing through," Jess Steen, a nurse on the unit, tells us. "She motivates both patients and staff to keep moving forward not only physically but also during emotionally tough times."
Penny tells us the staff help keep her moving forward, too. "The staff on that floor could not be better," Penny says. "I think there must be a question they ask when they do interviews: 'Do you care more than other people?' Because the staff there do. They know when you're down and need a hug or a boost. You can tell it's not just a job for them. It's a calling. I've been to other hospitals, and there's a night and day difference. The staff at Mayo are just a step above."
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