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Circle of Armstrong County friends launch Pay It Forward Foundation

| Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2012, 12:17 a.m.
Louis B. Ruediger
Diane Adams, center, with friends Jane Schiano, left, and Mickey Rugh who both helped Adams during her life threatening illnesses. Louis B. Ruediger | Leader Times

No matter how little we sleep, how well we multi-task or how smart our phone is, we can't make more time or make up for the loss of it.

Diana Crissman Adams truly understands “living in the moment.” The Sugarcreek Township resident knows all too well that the Earth's revolution around the sun is constant, no matter what condition we're in on any given day. And, when a medical crisis renders you totally helpless, there are days, weeks and sometimes months when you get by only with help from good friends.

Longtime friend Jane Schiano of Kittanning says, “My husband calls us 2 a.m. friends.” This refers to one of the litmus tests of friendship: Who would you call in the middle of the night for help?

For these two friends, plus about 10 more (now all known as the founding members of the Pay It Forward Foundation), the answer would be any one of them. Not only would they rise to the occasion to answer a call in the wee hours of the morning, but they would go the distance for another as long as necessary — and then some.

Several group members have taken their turns as the recipient of help in times of need, when convalescing after knee, back and other movable-part surgeries. However, it was in the spring of 2009 when their bonds of friendship were first tested and strengthened.

On April 19, Adams asked her daughter, Keenan — then a nursing student at Community College of Allegheny County — to take her to the Armstrong County Memorial Hospital emergency room. Diana, a licensed practical nurse of 27 years, had been experiencing intermittent abdominal pain for a few weeks. When the pain became unbearable, the two departed for the hospital.

The last memory that Diana had was getting into the car.

“Keenan said that I got out of the car on my own and then collapsed. I don't remember any of that.”

There would be many more days and events the then-50-year-old would not be able to recall. It would be more than a month before Adams would be aware of the reality of her condition, necrotizing pancreatitis, which nearly ended her life.

“They told my family that I had a 2 (percent) to 3 percent chance of surviving,” Adams says of the prognosis made by medical staff upon her arrival to UPMC Presbyterian in Pittsburgh via emergency helicopter from ACMH.

Adams did not regain consciousness until May 27. “I was on a ventilator and couldn't talk,” she says. “I didn't realize that all of that time had passed.” The six-week comatose state was essentially part of the medical plan, but the heart attack and stroke Adams experienced then were not. Numerous surgical procedures were needed during that time. It would be 3 months before she would be stable enough to leave the intensive care unit.

Her recollections of those weeks in ICU are non-existent or vague. Although Adams often was unaware of her situation, her friends were all too aware of the difficulties that were developing for Diana's family. Both of Adams' children — Keenan and her son, Tanner — were college students, with limited resources.

Mickey Rugh, another friend of many years, says, “We didn't want the kids to quit school. So we had a fundraiser.”

This first event, a dance, was a big success, helping to provide much-needed financial security for Diana, Keenan and Tanner. Adams knew none of this, as she had yet to emerge from her coma.

When Adams regained consciousness, she watched a group of friends and acquaintances become the cohesive group that they are today. According to Adams, “Some are friends from high school, some from college and some from work and other places. But, we're all friends now.”

Not only did the group rally with other fundraisers, they were there as a constant support for their sick friend. “Someone from that group was in to visit me at least once a week — from the hospital through the nursing home.”

It would be 6 months before she was discharged from UPMC Presbyterian, at which time she was given a 15 percent chance of surviving. She was transferred to UPMC Cranberry, an extended-care facility; however, there would be return trips because of various complications that necessitated acute care.

At Cranberry, Adams participated in hours of therapy each day to help regain the ability to perform the ordinary tasks that most people do without much conscious effort.

What Adams accomplished, however, was much more than ordinary.

“They said that I would probably never walk independently again,”she explains.

But walk she did. About a year after her admittance to UPMC Cranberry, Diana Crissman Adams walked out of the door.

The steps to recovery and return home were lengthy, but Adams did not walk alone. The same group of friends was still at her side.

“She's relentless,” Schiano says. “She's done everything they thought she couldn't.”

“She is such a caring person,” Rugh adds.

Adams gained function and strength as she continued her therapy as an outpatient upon her return home. As she needed less help, she wanted to reach out to others who found themselves in places where she had been. Adams called in the cavalry. Her core group of loyal friends decided, once again, to offer their help. As they organized, they took the name Pay It Forward.

Pay It Forward hopes to help those sidelined by trauma and their families to better manage the unexpected expenses that add to the stress of the situation. “You don't think about such things as the cost of travel and parking until you are faced with it,”Adams says.

Pay it Forward's fundraising expanded as they made and sold food at various summer festivals and events this year. Money raised thus far has been given to local families for things such as gasoline cards and home utility bill payments while a loved one is hospitalized or under medical treatment.

Diane Orris Acerni is a freelance writer.

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