She loved the St. Louis Cardinals and Asian culture and every stray cat she came across.
She loved the town where she'd grown up, too, so moving back to Clarksdale, Mo., a couple of years ago made perfect sense.
Being there made even more sense after she got sick. Kelly Plowman-Gardner was diagnosed in February with pericardial mesothelioma and passed away four months later, on June 28. She was 44, and her Facebook profile picture preached a message she knew too well: "Never regret growing old; not everyone has that PRIVILEGE."
Most of all, in the end, she was at the center of an intensely sad story — but also at the center of a community that didn't let her live it out alone.
Diagnosis and a decision
The day she was scheduled to start her fourth round of chemotherapy was the day Kelly couldn't keep fighting. It was Thursday, June 21, and she traded hospital treatment for in-home hospice care.
The path to that point began last September, with a knot in her back that wasn't helped by the muscle relaxer or cortisone shot her doctor administered. By December, a constant heaviness in her chest hindered her breathing, and she was always tired. Kelly went to the emergency room in January and was treated for fluid around her heart, a lung and a lymph node that doctors thought indicated pneumonia. A month later, not any better, she finally received the correct diagnosis at St. Luke's, where she worked as a medical coder.
"When she was diagnosed, she was given a year to a year and a half," says Mike Gardner, who married Kelly in 2010. "This is a very aggressive form of cancer."
Pericardial mesothelioma is also very rare, accounting for only 2 to 5 percent of the approximately 3,000 mesothelioma cases reported each year. According to The Mesothelioma Center, the cancer is caused by exposure to asbestos fibers that become lodged in the pericardial membranes that surround the heart. Over time — sometimes decades — these fibers cause the cells of the pericardium to undergo changes that may result in cancer.
How exactly Kelly was exposed to asbestos isn't clear; the exposure could have come from a previous home or workplace or even from makeup she wore years ago. Coupled with a genetic predisposition, it caused this kind of cancer that is usually difficult to treat by the time it's diagnosed. Kelly's treatment involved undergoing a very potent and lethal kind of chemotherapy every 21 days — one that left her incoherent nearly all the days in between.
"The second time they did it, she spent more time in the hospital than she did at home," Mike says. "The third time almost killed her."
In spite of such an aggressive approach, a CAT scan after the third round of chemotherapy showed the cancer had spread. Kelly didn't feel she could withstand more and decided, at the start of what would be the last week of her life, to stop treatment and go home.
By the following Monday, June 25, Kelly's condition had deteriorated significantly. And as had been the case many times since her diagnosis, it was evident how much she needed to be in the place that would always be home, despite how many years she'd spent away from it.
Both she and Mike grew up in the Clarksdale area and graduated from Maysville High School, him in 1984 and her in 1986. They didn't date then, however, and life after graduation eventually took them to separate states. They'd each married, had children and were single again when they happened to reconnect through Facebook. Kelly was living in Indiana then, and Mike moved there to be with her. They returned to Clarksdale — and to the very home where Kelly had grown up — in 2010.
"We traveled basically a full circle," Mike says, adding that their relationship took on a new level of significance after Kelly got sick. "God brought us together for a reason, and this explains why."
He adds that being back in Clarksdale also seemed orchestrated to soften the blow of Kelly's illness. The community made sure that they had meals, that their bills were paid, that their propane tank was filled and that they had gas to get to Kansas City for doctor's appointments. Clarksdale residents helped with her medical bills, too, by putting on a poker night and silent auction.
"Small towns shine like a beacon at times like this," says the Rev. Darren Potter, pastor of Clarksdale Christian Church, which Kelly attended as a child and rejoined after moving home. "We knew God had brought her back to us."
Looking back in the last hours
On the last afternoon of her life, Kelly was asleep but not alone. Around her that Wednesday in the living room of the home where she'd grown up were her mother and husband and children, all of them able to piece her past together to form a picture of who she was.
She was a godsend to her mother — a middle child and only daughter who always looked after everyone else. Even in moving back to Clarksdale, this had been her intent.
"Her theory in coming back to Missouri is that she could help me," her mother, Patsy Teel, says, adding on that last day of Kelly's life, "but now I'm helping her. And I'd do it in a heartbeat."
She was herself a mother to two daughters and three sons — in addition to having stepchildren, grandchildren and any number of additional children who came around.
"She had five kids and would take care of my friends, too," her daughter Linley Warner of Olathe, Kan., says.
Mike adds that even when she most needed care herself, Kelly's caring nature stood out.
"The other night, sitting next to her, she tapped my arm and asked if I was cold," he notes. "Even in her condition, she still looks out for everyone else and makes sure they're cared for."
Kelly passed away at 12:25 a.m. Thursday, June 28, and while her cancer battle is over, her family now lives in the loss it left behind. Certainly, she'd be glad to know they won't walk through it alone.
"Kelly, for us, lives on in many ways," the Rev. Potter says of his church and Clarksdale in general. "We're going to continue to remember her and journey with her family."