In a whirlwind five-month episode, Roma Ziarnko’s glimmering brown eyes saw the premature approach of fatality and, determined, saw a miraculous and sudden recovery. She walks forward with restored enthusiasm.
“Hello beautiful,” Ziarnko, 67, said as a mocha puppy bounded toward her on a crisp November morning while she walked from the Arborland bus stop to her house in Pittsfield Village. The neighbor’s dog greeted her with a sloppy kiss as she laughed effervescently, assuring the owner she didn’t mind.
“I like having dogs jump on me,” explained the Washtenaw Community College creative writing student and Poetry Club member who has a master’s degree in bilingual education. “Magnificent dog — and it has such spirit!”
CHRIS ASADIAN WASHTENAW VOICE
She notices her surroundings in detail: cascading golden leaves; a furry-tailed squirrel scampering up a tree; a barking Chihuahua in a rusted, robin’s-egg-blue truck. And she embraces all with keen appreciation. Before August, she didn’t know if she would be able to see another autumn.
Her illness manifested itself in April after a friend took Ziarnko to St. Joseph Mercy’s emergency room.
“It felt as if everything in my body was standing still, and I was in a universal vomit phase,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘something’s wrong.’”
She was initially told she had a urinary tract infection. But after a second visit, the doctors found a mass or tumor encasing the celiac axis, near the aorta, an abdominal artery that connects to the heart. The doctors suspected it was cancer.
Though shocked and scared, she was not without encouragement.
“When I was first diagnosed, I was in tears, like rain, like Niagara Falls,” she said in her cramped rented room amid scattered keepsakes of travels to Latin American and Asia, where she taught English in the late ’90s.
“A woman came out of her hospital office and gave this to me,” she said as she held up a flowered plaque that read “Love Never Fails.”
But she was upset with how the hospital treated her. She felt pressured to enter the hospital as an in-patient, and then the bills began to flood in. Ziarnko’s WCC creative writing instructor of two years saw the pressure she was under when he visited her after she missed a few classes.
“She was there giving hell to the doctors and nurses,” Jas Obrecht said. “She’s as tough as nails. . . . She almost had to be like her own self-appointed attorney to negotiate all the BS they were putting her through.”
St. Joes’ doctors wanted to perform an open biopsy to determine whether it was cancer, but Ziarnko remembered they initially said it was inoperable.
“I was scared to death,” Ziarnko said.
She asked a long-distance friend to talk to the doctor, and after the friend got off the phone, Ziarnko asked for her advice.
“She said, ‘if I were you and these were my doctors, I’d run like hell,’” Ziarnko said. “So I said, ‘Okay, tell me how to get out of here without losing my Medicare.’”
Ziarnko went to University of Michigan Health System for a second opinion, and under the care of Dr. Sandra Wong she learned that the mass was indeed inoperable. An open biopsy, or even chemotherapy, would do little good and might make it worse. Ziarnko was left without a conclusive answer: it might be cancer, an aneurism or a number of other conditions. She was sent home to wait for another measurement.
“They needed to know how fast this thing was growing,” Ziarnko said as her eyes filled with tears. “Now, they didn’t elaborate as to why, but I knew why — it’s just a reality: How fast is this growing? How long have I to live? How long will I be able to stay out of a nursing home?”
She took a summer creative writing class to take her mind off the wait, and switched her diet to super-healthy staples of brown rice, lentils, fruits and vegetables, eliminating sugar, meat, dairy and soy.
“I was just shooting in the dark, hoping I’d hit a target and it’d go away,” she said through tears.
Ziarnko, a Quaker since the 1960s, also had a convent and two churches praying for her, though she never told her family she was sick because she was so devastated.
CHRIS ASADIAN WASHTENAW VOICE
Then in July, two months before she was scheduled to go in for another measurement, she stopped at a small street art fair and bought a poster from Bonnie Barfield, whose tent read “Entertaining Angels Unawares,” based on the bible verse Hebrews 13:2: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” In a burst of confidence, Ziarnko told Barfield of her condition, who listened attentively before answering.
“She said, ‘here’s my card, it says ‘Entertaining Angels,’” Ziarnko said. “Then she said, ‘when you go in for that measurement, let me tell you something, it’s going to be gone — it will disappear, as if it had never been there, and when it does, you call me up and tell me that it’s gone.’”
Ziarnko was perplexed, but encouraged.
“I didn’t think I could write it off,” Ziarnko explained. “There’s energy out there that we don’t understand.”
And when she went in for the scheduled measurement in mid-August, the results came back as she had never truly expected — yet always prayed for.
“Dr. Wong said, ‘Roma, I have terrific news for you: It’s not there,’” Ziarnko recounted as she started to tear up again. “I couldn’t believe her — I said to her, ‘but it’s narrowing the aorta,’ and she said, ‘it’s not anymore.’
“I started screaming, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, it really isn’t there!’ And she said, ‘Go home and live your life.’”
Dr. Wong had no explanation for why the mass disappeared. Ziarnko, blissful and astounded, walked around Ann Arbor and stopped at shops she knew, telling acquaintances, “It’s gone!”
Ziarnko explains this phenomenon as a miracle.
“I’d heard stories about things like this happening to other people; I never thought it would happen to me,” she said. “But part of me always held out this thin little ray of hope.”
When Ziarnko told Obrecht about the recovery, he told her what she needed to hear.
“I said, ‘Roma, this might be the good Lord’s way of saying it’s time to write your book,’” Obrecht said. “‘You were brought back for a reason, so get to work.’
“When things like this happen, there’s a bigger meaning in the grand scheme of life; your time may not be up because there’s more to do. You don’t know what the reasons are, but you’ve been given a reprieve, and I think you need to pay attention to those things and act accordingly, make every minute count.”
And Obrecht has noticed a change since August.
“She’s unstoppably upbeat and optimistic,” he enthused. “To have gone through an experience like that and bounce back like a handball, just so full of life and energy, it shows you how much health is in your mind.”
Ziarnko has always been disciplined in her writing, but she now works three to eight hours a day trying to “pump out a book.” She has written one chapter so far, inspired by her years of teaching in Texas and abroad. She enthuses about her passion for writing, but holds herself to high standards.
CHRIS ASADIAN WASHTENAW VOICE
“I want my book to have heart, and it if doesn’t have that, it isn’t worth a damn,” Ziarnko said. “I like the kind of book you can fall in love with. I always have the nagging thought of, ‘what if I’m not good enough,’ but I have to go on and try anyway, because if I don’t I’ll never know.”
Obrecht thinks she won’t have a problem writing an infinitely readable book.
“I’m bugging her all the time to write a book, because she has this way of using the English language that’s vibrant and full of life, and she is the all-time master of the active voice, beyond any writer I know,” Obrecht said.
“Roma makes every moment of life count,” he added. “Life is choices, and Roma chooses to embrace the positive, she chooses to embrace life; she reaches out to others through her poetry and prose and the way she lives her life, so she’s a celebrator, that’s what she is, she’s a celebrator, and we need all those people in the world we can possibly get.”