Decorating handbags, Patty Elzinga makes lemonade out of lung cancer

Oh, the Places You’ll Go is one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books. I would add: “Oh, the people you’ll meet.”  Such as Patty Elzinga, my latest discovery. I was taken with her upbeat outlook and the parallels in our lives.

Patty with her husband Bob.

The Sarasota Art Center Fabulous Arts Boutique, several weeks ago, produced 2 bonuses. At a jewelry display, I pawed through a basket and found and bought new favorite earrings—brass, hand cut, bent and etched with turquoise. That night we dined with Linda and Bob Salisbury. Linda’s an artist friend with whom I attend boot camp. She influences me to execute deeper lunges. She must influence me  aesthetically as well. She’d visited the SAC boutique before I did and also looked at thousands of pieces. She showed up at dinner wearing a new pendant—the match to my new earrings.

But I digress.

The main bonus came from a booklet on artists included in the boutique. I noticed  Patty’s bio.  She owned and ran hair salons and spas in mid-Michigan but stopped working the day she was diagnosed with lung cancer.  She turned the business over to 3 of her grown children who were already working there. To keep busy during chemo, Patty started embellishing handbags.

I shot Patty an email. Turns out she and husband Bob live in Lowell, MI, a small town near Grand Rapids. They spend winters in Venice, just south of Sarasota. Patty and I met for lunch at Sarasota’s Phillipi Creek. As good as my blackened grouper sandwich was, Patty was better.  She’s my wise, wacky, creative new pal.

Coincidence #1: We were diagnosed the same week in July, 2004.

One of Patty’s embellished handbags.

Coincidence #2:  I advise cancer patients to find a project to occupy them during chemo.  Patty taught herself to bead and began embellishing purses.  The practice has turned into a business.  She creates custom bags for others.

My chemo project was skimming my old handwritten journals and typing entries about our sons into separate files. Along with invaluable Denise Tietze, our then exec assistant, I created separate journals for our sons: their youth through their mom’s eyes. The project had an unexpected benefit. I saw how much needless time I spent worrying. 90% of what I anguished over never came to pass.

Coincidence #3.  Our farm in Charlevoix, MI, is near Friske’s Farm Market, formerly Elzinga Farm Market. Over the years, we stopped at Elzinga’s to buy cherries or cider—whatever was in season. The Elzingas named a beach on Lake Michigan where we enjoyed summer picnics, including watermelon seed spitting contests. (Watermelon seeds? This was a looong time ago.)  Bob’s a distant relative of the NoMI Elzingas.

Coincidence #4:  Patty once worked in fashion. I worked for 3 Saks stores and was a journalist with Women’s Wear Daily.  Early on, Patty owned a ladies’ fashion shop. Returning from a buying trip, she visited a new discount mall.  “I saw the writing on the wall,” she says.  “I couldn’t begin to compete with the prices.”  She put everything in her shop on sale and converted the space to a nail salon.

After staying home to jumpstart 4 kids, Patty and oldest daughter Heidi Christine opened Heidi Christines, a hair salon in 1987.  Their original 2 chairs have turned into a thriving business of 2 salon/spas with 16 chairs in one, 12 in the other, in the affluent towns of Ada and Caledonia, near Grand Rapids, MI.

One of Patty’s favorite photos with her husband Bob.

Coincidence #5:  Patty was so terrified by her diagnosis (lung cancer, 2B, with lymph involvement) she asked her husband Bob to take over her case. I was so terrified by mine (uterine cancer, stage 4, pelvic spread), I asked Burton to take over mine. In both cases, our husbands were diligent and devoted. Almost 14 years later, Patty and I are still grateful. And still around.

Coincidence #6:  Patty and Bob and Burton and I bought places in Florida after we were diagnosed.  Burton and I, in Sarasota.  Patty and Bob, in Venice.  The plan for  their Florida villa: “Bob and I would enjoy each other until I died.  I didn’t die, so we bought a bigger villa.”

Coincidence #7:  We both sought out and were strengthened by survival stories from others.

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Coincidence #8:  We both wrote books about our experience.  Hers, Over My Dead Body, is more of an informal thank you to those who supported her and a remembrance for family and friends.

Patty did one thing I wish I’d thought of.  She adored her internist, Dr. Joan Medima, who first diagnosed her. Before her treatment began, Patty wrote her internist  a letter. In part, she said:

I have loved being your patient and having you as a part of my life. I am a better person because of it.  Thank you for being you! I’m sorry you had to bring me the news you did. I know what you had to go through to do so. Wherever I go from here, it will be easier knowing that you are on my team.

I, too, appreciate my internist, Dr. Gordon Moss, who first diagnosed my problem. Also, my oncologist, Dr. John Malone at Detroit’s Karmanos Cancer Institute. I dedicated GodSigns, my memoir about my recovery, to him. He never got to read it. He died from a staph infection before publication.

Coincidence #9:  Patty and I were supported through our ordeals by our faith. Patty writes, “It’s good to be carried by God.  All my life I have had to be in control, and it often didn’t work well.  Giving up and letting God’s will be done is much easier.  Why didn’t I think of this before?”

Aside from creating bags and jewelry, Patty paints.  She’s taking a class to learn to paint portraits and has done images of all of her grandchildren. She downplays her ability. “I’m not good but I’m close.”  She’s most actively creative while dealing with health issues. A reformed smoker, she’s now in and out of the hospital with COPD and emphysema. She keeps her beading supplies organized in plastic bags. They’re ready to go if and when she requires hospitalization.

In her book, Patty provides a bullet list of advice for her grandchildren. One entry sums up her attitude. “If you wait for your ship to come in, it will sink in the harbor. Swim out and get it!”

Thanks for sharing your story, Patty.  Keep swimming.

Patty’s grandchildren displaying the portraits she painted of each one.

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12 thoughts on “Decorating handbags, Patty Elzinga makes lemonade out of lung cancer

  1. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Phyllis Keyser
    Really needed that 90% reminder. You are my 90% friend. Your blog’s so inspiring. Just like positive sermons from my beloved minister.

  2. Linda Milne

    What a great story, Suzy! So many parallels between your lives. That’s a wonderful photo of the grandkids holding up their portraits! What a neat idea. This is for sure a picker-upper – thank you!

    1. Suzy Farbman Post author

      Thanks, Linda. Really appreciate your comment. I totally agree about the photo at the end. Is that adorable or what! Hugs to you both.

  3. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Kim Cornetet
    Wow! I used to get my hair cut at Heidi Christines in Ada. I live about 2 miles away from it! Loved this story and all your coincidences.

  4. Suzy Farbman Post author

    as emailed from Stan & Jackie Schear
    One of your best stories. So true of what Jackie and I experienced during her discovery of stage 3 esophageal cancer. Thanks for sharing.

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