Maureen’s Story: Embracing Others, Leaving a Legacy

“Nurturer”: the single word that may best describe the late Maureen Maher. Her primary occupation was that of homemaker — wife for 44 years to the late Austin Maher and mother to their four children, sons Austin, Christopher, and Brendan and daughter Jacqueline. And then, as the years went on, she became a doting grandmother to ten grandchildren.

Maureen Maher and her grandchildren
Maureen Maher and some of her grandchildren

However, Maureen had a lot of love to give and extended her caring beyond the walls of her home and into her New Jersey community. For many years she mentored at Paterson Catholic High School, volunteered at Morristown Soup Kitchen, and served as a foster parent for the Division of Youth and Family Services in Wayne.
 
She also found time to travel the world, always eager to learn about diverse cultures and meet new people. During her lifetime she traveled throughout the United States and Europe as well as farther-flung regions including Turkey, Vietnam, China, Tibet, Cambodia, and South America.
 

A Trip Not Made

Maureen was in the midst of final preparations for a trip she planned to make to Africa — one of the few continents she had not yet visited — in 2012 when pain in her right leg brought her to an orthopedist. Imaging studies revealed a lesion in her femur and a biopsy showed that it was cancer, a type known as cancer of unknown primary origin, which means that routine testing cannot identify the primary site from which the tumor originates.  
 
She turned to Memorial Sloan Kettering medical oncologist Stephen R. Veach, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers of unknown primary origin. After further sophisticated testing, Dr. Veach determined that Maureen had cholangiocarcinoma, a bile duct cancer that develops in the small duct branches within the liver.
 
By the time of her diagnosis, her disease was in an advanced stage and had spread to bones throughout her body. But, as was characteristic of her, Maureen remained upbeat and undaunted. “She was the kindest, nicest person you’d ever want to meet,” remembers Dr. Veach. “She never complained, never asked ‘Why me?’ and was an inspiration to other patients.”
 
With Dr. Veach’s expert treatment, Maureen lived for another two years. While “she had her good days and her bad days,” recalls her niece Beth Daly, she continued to visit Cape Cod, a favorite retreat, and insisted on traveling — by herself — from New Jersey to her appointments at MSK in Manhattan.
 
“Our entire family was available to help her in any way we could,” says Beth. “But my aunt was fiercely independent, and although her sons Christopher and Brendan did accompany her to some of her visits, more often than not she called a car service and made it to MSK and back on her own.”
 
It was during this time, Beth recalls, that Maureen asked, rhetorically: How do people do it? “What she meant was that she was fortunate enough to be able to afford those nonmedical expenses that arose during the course of her treatment,” Beth says. “However, she recognized that people can find themselves in serious financial straits when dealing with cancer. It’s everything from parking and food and transportation to the fact that sometimes a family member is forced to give up a job to care for a loved one. All of this can cause enormous additional stress.”
 

A Special Gift 

“Even during the last months of her life, Maureen was talking to me about how she could help other patients after her death,” says Dr. Veach. Shortly after Maureen’s passing, in 2014, her son Christopher had several conversations with Dr. Veach to discuss how best to honor his mother’s memory — and they came up with an idea. “MSK gets many donations to support research,” says Dr. Veach, “and of course that’s vital. But there are also other important and meaningful ways in which one can help.”
 
Many years earlier, Maureen’s aunt Noreen McKeen had established the McKeen Fund. “Noreen was dedicated to helping the elderly and children and left most of what she had to the fund,” explains Beth. Maureen’s relatives decided to make a donation from the McKeen Fund to MSK directed to helping patients and families deal with nonmedical expenses that they find difficult or impossible to cover on their own.
 

A Relief for Patients

“Philanthropy such as the gift from Maureen Maher and her family helps us help our adult and pediatric patients,” says Penelope Damaskos, Director of MSK’s Department of Social Work. In general, these are patients who are in the midst of active treatment, but Dr. Damaskos and her staff can also assist patients post-treatment. One example might be a patient who’s undergone a bone marrow transplant, needs assistance in managing continued side effects, and must visit the hospital regularly for follow-up appointments in the months following the procedure.
 
Social workers facilitate the administration of the funds; assistance can include the costs of basic needs such as transportation, food, or a hotel — if patients and their families have to travel long distances — or even go toward covering a rent or a mortgage payment, using a “Quality of Life” grant if the rigors of cancer treatment has put them in arrears. In one recent case, a patient diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer was forced to move out of his subsidized housing due to mold. A quality-of-life grant helped him purchase a new mattress and box spring as well as buy new clothes — the disease had caused him to lose so much weight that nothing he owned fit him anymore.
 
An initial nursing assessment conducted with all new MSK patients helps to establish whether a patient or family may experience financial difficulties as a result of treatment. If the assessment finds that financial hardship is a possibility, referrals are made to social workers, who then work with Patient Financial Services and the patient or family to determine what needs exist. If at any time during treatment nurses or other healthcare staff discover that a patient or family is experiencing financial hardship, they can also make a referral.
 
“In social work, we assist with the emotional and psychosocial issues surrounding a cancer diagnosis and its impact on treatment,” says Dr. Damaskos. “As part of our psychosocial assessment we can do a great deal to help patients and families with those things that can often be barriers to accessing care, such as not being able to afford transportation. This type of assistance contributes enormously to a patient’s quality of life and ability to manage the stresses of treatment. And it’s generous and foresighted people like Maureen Maher and her family that make this aspect of our work possible.”