A Place to Call Home
KEVIN’S ORIGINAL STORY
Written by Kyrie Belme
Interview by Brittany Avila Wazny
I walked into Serenity House, anxious but aware, like I had done so many times before. I was meeting Angel Speier and her family in the Habermann Room. Angel’s husband Kevin had been diagnosed with Stage IV Squamous Cell Carcinoma of the tongue, head, and neck in October 2015. I didn’t know much about the family beyond Kevin’s age and diagnosis, and I felt nervous that I was walking into a more tragic and somber situation than I have been in before.
As I reached the door, I was greeted by a beautiful young woman with a big smile, Angel Speier. Angel warmly welcomed me in. I scanned my surroundings. Something was different about this room. I noticed the personal elements that Angel had brought in from home: her coffee maker, the refrigerator full of their favorite drinks and snacks, family photos, and a work station for her to continue their family business with PackedKits®. I immediately felt her energy of confidence and ease, like I was walking into her own home, her own room. We spoke briefly there about how she and Kevin met as teens at church camp and about their two kids: son Jase, who is “a four-year old in a 14-year old’s body,” and 22-month old daughter Alina.
We continued our conversation into the Serenity House living room. Angel relaxed and sank into the couch. I asked her about Kevin’s journey to Serenity House, and in a matter-of-fact manner, she explained.
Following his diagnosis, Kevin went in for surgery: nearly a full glossectomy, bilateral neck resection, and tongue reconstruction requiring two large skin grafts were the highlights of a very complicated and extensive procedure. Three weeks after surgery, he started chemotherapy and high intensive radiation, which continued for a year, requiring many trips to and from the hospital. In 2016, Kevin and Angel were hopeful, as any young family would be, and Kevin began working with a new trial. At first they saw progress, until there wasn’t any. Over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2016, Kevin was rushed to the emergency room.
After Christmas he moved into Serenity House. I asked her about the decision to move Kevin into Serenity House. Angel’s tone immediately changed from one of a longtime caretaker to that of a loving wife balancing both the emotion and responsibility that this great life challenge had presented to her. “It was a really hard decision; I had to call his parents. It was very surreal. I thought, if we are going to do this, then we are going to do this. And I had to break the news.”
Serenity House, for the Speiers, was the final destination of this difficult journey. Kevin and Angel had discussed before that it wasn’t to be a half-way point. He didn’t want to go back and forth from home once they made the choice to move to Serenity House, which would now be home. Angel was at a point where their home, which had two little ones running through it and a number of distractions, was no longer equipped to care for Kevin or her family…as a whole unit…in a healthy way.
As we continued to talk about the experience provided at Serenity House, another family walked into the living room. I almost expected Angel to ask to move, as this was an intimate conversation, but she continued sharing. “This is a very homey feel, versus the hospital. The hospital was our home for such a very long time, but it was a place I never cared to be at, or have family members come and visit.” The hospital she explained, “always felt like I needed to tip-toe around, and here it actually feels like home. It actually feels nicer than our house; and I can sleep here so I can be with him.”
Angel and Kevin’s optimistic outlook through Kevin’s entire journey never ceased to amaze me, as she explained that they created a solution to making hospital stays more comforting with their start-up company PackedKits®. Angel shared that PackedKits® was started during Kevin’s chemotherapy and radiation treatments. They found a need for a “go-to” hospital bag that would have both fun and practical supplies for patients in treatment at a facility. Kevin was able to work on the launch of this company during treatments, and Angel continues to run it. Throughout their journey they continued to care about others. “We want our customers, our family, and our friends to have the same feeling we experienced with our PackedKits®. It was one less thing to worry about, and one less thing to worry about during these times makes a world of difference.” My heart soared with admiration for this fearless and driven couple.
As we got up to walk outside, the kids met us with their grandmother. I was introduced to the Speier bunch and quickly fell in love with the precocious brother and sister pair. They led us outside to the playground where they became accustomed to playing on each visit. “It’s really nice, they can run out, we can open the patio doors and go run outside and play with the fountains and the lizards, and they like playing with the little turtle structure, and the toys.”
As we headed back inside, the family saw one of their favorite nurses, Dorothy, who greeted the two little ones with a big hug as they ran into her arms. Angel continued to describe the care Kevin received as well as the care the entire family received while at Serenity House. “Everybody would say Serenity House takes care of not only patients, but their families as well. They’re like family,” she reiterated several times and the embrace with Dorothy made that quite clear. The Speiers felt like Serenity House was home, and the nurses and staff felt like family.
They were assured that the support and caregiving was being provided by trusted experts. Although Angel chose to do some of the caregiving, she didn’t have to do it all. “The staff would say, ‘You need to stop for a moment and let us deal with it. Just relax and enjoy your time together.’ ”
It was easier to find balance in caring for Kevin and continuing life as a family, knowing that those around her were there to help too. Angel had the ability to be with Kevin in the most beautiful way at his passing; lying next to him in his bed and holding her beloved’s hand. And while the Santa Barbara community mourns the loss of a brilliant young man, whose kind heart and baseball talents made him widely known to others, we can all feel comforted knowing there is a place where people like Kevin could spend his final days cared for with dignity and surrounded by those he loved most.
Serenity House can be home for any family, just like the Speiers, a family who in the past two years has been through it all…hospital, home, hospice, and finally Serenity House…a place that they call home.
Everyone needs help; even a young, vibrant family led by a strong, independent mother. Theirs is a story of love, hope, and commitment, and with Serenity House, the Speiers were able to spend their last days together, peacefully, in a place that they felt comfortable and confident to call their own.
(L-R) Jase, Alina & Angel at Serenity House. PHOTO: Rafael Ramirez, 2017.