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Counselor faces her own battle

Dougy Center director Donna Schuurman fights breast cancer just as her book takes off

Donna Schuurman who has spent 17 years working at Portland's Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families is facing life and death issues of her own.

Schuurman has talked the talk and now she must walk the walk.

A run of bad medical news at the end of June led from a mammogram to an ultrasound test, lumpectomy surgery and finally to a mastectomy as doctors battled Schuurman's breast cancer. Still to come are radiology and chemotherapy.

Suddenly, her long-planned cycling holiday in Tuscany, Italy, is another year away.

Monday, July 7, Schuurman is at the Dougy Center contemplating the mastectomy she will face the next day. At 48, she's slim and blond with bright blue eyes and a yellow blouse that sets off her tan; she still looks like the Outward Bound director she once was.

As she speaks, Schuurman leans against the punching bag in the Volcano Room of the Dougy Center, at 3909 S.E. 52nd Ave. That's the basement space where children take out their aggressions by beating the tar out of big teddy bears or Barney the purple dinosaur.

'We had a Curious George but they wouldn't hit him: 'He's our role model,' they told me,' she says with a smile. 'But we've had a lot of Barneys.'

Schuurman is the executive director of the Dougy Center, an organization that helps children deal with the death of a loved one. Its origin and name come from Dougy Turno, a 10-year-old boy diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1981. Upset that adults couldn't deal with his situation when he could, he wrote to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, author of 1969's 'On Death and Dying.'

Kubler-Ross wrote back with drawings and Dougy asked for extra copies for his friends. These became a book: 'Letters to a Child With Cancer the Dougy Letters.' When Dougy was transferred to Oregon Health Sciences University, Kubler-Ross contacted nurse Beverly Chappell, who had taken one of her courses. The first meeting of what would become the Dougy Center was held at Chappell's home in November 1982 by the Portland nurse and her late husband, Alan.

The fledgling Dougy Center first rented a house on the campus of Warner Pacific College, then bought the house on Southeast 52nd Avenue in 1988. In 2001, the center bought the house next door for $128,000 (thanks to a donor) and this spring built a two-story, 2,800-square-foot library and research center on the north side.

Now 14 staff members and 100 volunteers help an estimated 350 children at any given time through classes and counseling sessions. The idea has spread worldwide, with 140 similar centers from Japan to Australia to Germany.

The meaning of her work has been brought vividly into focus, Schuurman says.

'One thing about a traumatic experience like death or an illness or falling in love it takes you out of linear time,' she says. 'An hour seems like a day and a day is like a week. My world has changed so much in 10 days that on one hand, it feels like a year has gone by, and on the other, it was just yesterday.'

Coincidentally, Schuurman's bad news arrived at the moment her book about the Dougy Center, 'Never the Same: Coming to Terms With the Death of a Parent,' is hitting the stores.

Its 224 speedy pages amount to a handbook for grieving individuals, right down to a quiz readers can take to see how well they dealt or are dealing with the death of a loved one.

Schuurman's book was cited on Dr. Laura's radio show July 16. It also generated a huge number of queries at Amazon.com and 600 e-mails to the Dougy Center. Schuurman says the book is a synthesis of the advice she's given to others.

'I ran into so many adults pouring out how they felt when their fathers died when they were 10,' she says. 'I found myself hearing many of the same experiences and I was saying the same things to them. So I thought it would be nice to tell them, 'I've got something I'd like you to read.' '

Schuurman has a doctorate in education but she says she's constantly learning.

'I'm not a grief expert, I'm just somebody who reads a lot and listens a lot,' she says. 'I'm an emissary. I'm not even an expert on my own grief. You plod through it; you stumble along and figure things out.'

A week after her operation she is subdued, but resolute. She says she didn't want to lose a breast, but she didn't want to die either.

'I'm relatively OK,' Schuurman says. 'I have stage two cancer and it goes from zero to four. Doctors tell me I'm healing well. I did yoga last night, and that's a good sign.'

Schuurman says she'll have three months of chemotherapy starting in August and asks for copies of the photographs taken for this article 'so I can remember what my hair looks like.' She also half-jokingly says she's sorry she missed her chance to be a topless dancer.

In the same vein, she ponders a fashion line for chemo headgear, dismissing the American Cancer Society's catalog as 'a terry cloth turban for when you get out of the shower.' She notes that the pain of surgery is passing, but it seems unfair to lose her appetite and gain weight at the same time.

But the trip to Italy remains a beacon. Schuurman plans to learn Italian through language tapes and be ready to go next year.

'Tuscany will still be there, and if it's not, none of us will be.'

Contact Paul Duchene This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..