On Christmas Eve morning in 2009, business owner Deborah Delaney was pulling the cinnamon rolls from the oven in her well-appointed Wayzata, Minn., home and worrying about preparations for her guests arriving for that evening’s festivities.
At that moment, the phone rang with news that would change her life, ultimately for the better.
“I want you to know that your (breast) biopsy came back as cancerous,” a nurse told Delaney. After a few moments of conversation, Delaney, a youthful 53-year-old, returned the phone to the receiver.
“I’m going to die,” she thought.
“Then I composed myself and thought, ‘I have to get this thing out of me,’” Delaney she recalled in an interview last week. “Then I remembered, I’ve got all these people coming over. And my husband, Dale, sat down next to me and put his arm around me and said, ‘It’s going to be OK.’
“We told our (two) girls. And then I said, ‘Come on, we’ve got all this cooking to do.’”
In her heart, Delaney, a confident saleswoman and manager who had made more than $250,000 annually during the 1990s in the telecommunications business, was shaken by the prospect of months of treatment and her own mortality.
SarahCare owner and CEO Deborah Delaney (second from right) and program coordinator Diane Stang (left) lead a group in a short exercise session on Dec. 22, in Savage, Minnesota. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
In January, the cancer was removed. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation over several months and got a positive prognosis: There’s a 95 percent probability that she will live at least another 15 years.
“I’ll take that,” she said. “I’ve got a business to run.”
In 2002, Delaney had left the telecom industry and invested more than $100,000 into launching Sarah Adult Day Services in Savage, the first Twin Cities “SarahCare” franchise. The business provides adult day and chronic-care management for about a third to half the price of a full-time nursing home. The service offers at-home care providers a break and works with clients through nurses, nursing assistants, therapists and others to help patients lead as full a life as possible.
Delaney chose SarahCare, because she had dropped out of college so that she could care for her ailing mother ― while also working a full-time job. And Delaney’s market research showed that elder care was a boom market.
Her illness only increased the hard-charging Delaney’s passion for her business, her customers, their families and her staff.
“I had become a vulnerable adult,” she said. “I needed help ... I get it now. I’m softer, more empathetic. People mean more to me.”
Delaney was changed by a process that began every other Thursday for several months that began with nurses filling two large syringes with cancer-killing toxins, known as “Red Devils,” after donning protective garb so they would not be burned if anything spills.
“‘Oh my God,’” Delaney recalled thinking as the needles penetrated her skin. “Your head gets loaded with a terrible weight. You’re very tired. It’s called ‘chemo brain.’ I’d be wiped out through Monday. Then I’d go to work. I’d try to hide the fear and pain. But I’d lose my memory. I couldn’t remember the names of people. Or where I put my keys, even though they were on the same corner of the desk as usual.”
There also was financial stress. It took until 2008 for SarahCare to break even. Delaney had to invest more than she had projected. She refinanced her Wayzata dream house, valued at $1.2 million in 2006, to pay down business-related debt. The monthly payment rose from $3,000 to $8,000. And her husband lost his job before Delaney got sick.
Still, Delaney could not stop marveling at what she regarded as her good fortune. The love and generosity of her family, close friends and staff buoyed her spirits. She cut her CEO salary to $50,000 to save money. And she grew closer to her husband and prouder of her college-educated daughters, one of whom works at SarahCare.
The busy staff, including nursing assistants who make $12 to $14 an hour, always had time to inquire about the boss’ health and what they could do.
Even though it was expensive, Delaney was grateful that she was able to provide health insurance to employees.
“Who knows when one of them could discover cancer, have a stroke or fall and hit their head,” Delaney said. “It can happen to anyone.”
As Delaney’s health improved this year and her memory and energy returned, she and Dale made some life-enhancing decisions. They sold the expensive speedboat, gave away possessions that did not matter anymore and put the big house up for sale.
“I’ve got a second chance,” Delaney said. “Now, I don’t need the big house, the boat and all those things that used to mean a lot to me. I still need to make a living. But it’s more about what I can do to help others. I’m more reflective. My reward is helping struggling families.”
Delaney is calm, energetic, positive and focused.
“This business is a lot tougher than I thought initially and it took longer than I thought to (reach positive) cash flow,” she said. “Now the government and everybody else wants to keep people out of (more expensive) nursing homes and living as independently as possible.”
Delaney received the eternal holiday gift: the realization that less can be more. Good health and good relationships are priceless.
By Neal St. Anthony
(Star Tribune (Minneapolis))
(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)