He was a valet parking attendant.
Jeni Hill isn’t so sure he wasn’t something more.
It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and Jeni and her husband Nate, stricken with a cancer that had attacked his mouth and jaw, thought they would be able to enter UAMS’ Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute for a postoperative visit, only to find they’d misunderstood and were unable to go in because of restrictions.
It was a low point in a cancer journey that, unfortunately, roughly 2 million Americans and thousands of Arkansans a year are forced to make. Yet at that moment, the couple — accompanied by Nate’s mother, with Nate burdened by drains and a nasal feeding tube — encountered some unlikely words of support and wisdom.
“A parking attendant at UAMS asked if he could pray with us,” Jeni says, “and part of his prayer was, ‘Lord, turn this mess into a message and this test into a testimony.’ And I’ve tried to live that out every day since.”
Despite her loss — Nate died in October 2021 — Jeni is personifying the prayer, sharing the message of the Arkansas division of the American Cancer Society and offering her testimony.
“I feel like he was an angel put there at that moment for us,” she says of the mysterious man in the parking lot.
On June 9, Jeni will be among the honorees at the ACS’ new fundraiser, Best Dressed Little Rock, inspired by other ACS organizations around the country. The event will recognize 20 volunteer fundraisers decked out in “fun cocktail fashion,” allowing them to put their best foot forward after doing the same for ACS.
Some honorees will raid their closets and others will be dressed by local shops, depending on their preference.
“We want everyone’s personality to come out,” local ACS Development Manager Sophia Ashcraft says. “They get to walk down a runway, and while they’re walking down a runway we want them to feel comfortable. That’s when you look your best, when you feel comfortable.”
“I do enjoy clothes,” says Jeni, anticipating the sequined, open-back number she will wear. “It’s always fun to have a reason to dress up. That was a fun part of it.”
MESS & TEST
Jeni has a chipper demeanor that belies the trials she went through while raising a young child and assisting her husband. Nate was diagnosed the day before their daughter, Olivia, turned 6 and he had surgery that October, followed by treatments before the cancer spread to his spine and ultimately cost him his life. He would have turned 40 this year.
“He fought it for 13 months and right away had major jaw surgery where he had six teeth removed. And feeding tubes,” Jeni says. “Then six weeks of radiation, and then we had a few good months, and then his back started hurting, which led to him spending several months at UAMS for back surgeries, plastic surgeries due to staph infection.”
Hospitalization is no vacation, but during the pandemic it was a borderline nightmare for many, including Jeni, Nate, their family and friends. In the 2 ½ months he was hospitalized, Nate couldn’t sit up or stand because of his back, and pandemic precautions dictated he could have only one visitor at a time, which raised the need for precise scheduling.
“It was very strict, understandably,” Jeni says. “But it just made our situation extremely difficult.”
Both Nate and Jeni were dentists who had met in school. Just before the diagnosis she had moved on to her own esthetics business, which gave her the flexible hours to help Nate, but at one point, neither could work thanks in part to the pandemic.
Then there were the everyday responsibilities, with only Jeni able to meet them.
“Just focusing on doing the next right thing,” Jeni says, explaining how she managed. “I would mentally have these buckets because I had to take care of myself, I had to take care of him, I had to take care of my daughter, I had to take care of my house. I had a job. I had new life responsibilities and every day I just had to put energy into each of those buckets and make sure that none of them overflowed or were empty.”
In explaining the situation to Olivia, Jeni tried not to overload her daughter, but to tell her as much as she thought a 6- and 7-year-old could handle and to answer all her questions.
“She saw me cry, but I tried to be careful how I grieved in front of her. Just to be cautious of how she would interpret that,” Jeni says. “And she needed to be reassured that I was OK. What was going on with my husband, they were very close. I tried to be honest.”
When Nate died, Jeni and Olivia worked together on the arrangements, such as allowing Olivia to help choose an urn.
“When it came to planning his funeral and things, we did a lot of it together,” Jeni says. “I asked for her input on a lot of things and that was very healing.”
DRESSED FOR SUCCESS
Despite the tragedy of Nate’s loss, Jeni can admit to feeling fortunate in some ways. She had a group of family and friends to help her through the more challenging times. Others, she says, are not that lucky.
When Jeni learned the work of the ACS and its Arkansas branches, she realized many people find themselves facing their cancer journey, or that of their loved ones, alone. So when a friend at ACS asked Jeni if she wanted to help, it was an easy yes.
“For me it’s just a no-brainer to get involved,” Jeni says. “I feel so blessed, but I know other people need more.”
It is projected that more than 18,000 Arkansans will be diagnosed with a form of cancer this year. Through advocacy, research and patient support, the ACS works to help people prevent, detect, treat and survive cancer, and the efforts extend to families and loved ones helping to provide care.
With grants and funds raised, the ACS supports free lodging for patients and caregivers via its Hope Lodges and a partnership with Extended Stay America. Patient transportation grants resulted in 12,604 rides for 1,493 patients in Arkansas in 2022, while patient lodging grants provided 1,115 nights to 165 patients that same year.
“I really didn’t know that all the money stayed local, which really impressed me,” Jeni says. “That was one of the biggest things, and all the services that they offer — transportation, the mental and psychological support care.”
There is also the National Cancer Information Center, which provides around-the-clock, expert assistance on general information, mental health support, nurse support and insurance; the Road to Recovery volunteer transportation program, available in Little Rock; a wealth of support information under cancer.org; an online survivors network, before-and-after survivorship guidelines and more.
“My biggest passion for this organization is just realizing the impact when one person in a family has cancer, and how much that affects everybody and how much help you need,” Jeni says.
To support such things, in this case Access to Care grants, Best Dressed Little Rock has a first-year goal of $175,000 the ACS hopes to grow over time.
“That’s what all of this particular event and all of our events in Arkansas go toward,” Ashcraft says. “That’s what we want people to realize, that it is coming back to their communities.”
To help meet that goal, Jeni says, she reached out to a lot of friends and neighbors for donations and was planning a Cinco de Mayo event at her brother’s house. She may not be handing out parking lot prayers, but she is translating her own mess to message and her own test to testimony.
And it’s something worth getting dressed up for.
HAIR & MAKEUP