Customized cane stabilizes Mt. Pleasant Township man's sense of hope
The grooves etched into each of the wooden canes made by Jen Costello run deep.
They form myriad sections bearing a variety of shapes doused in vivid shades of acrylic paints.
Each of the devices display personalized images that complete what Costello said is her artistic craft of hope.
Mt. Pleasant Township's Mark Smitley — who is battling brain cancer — recently became the latest to receive one of Costello's canes.
Cane maker is a cancer survivor
Costello, 46, of Penn Township began hand carving the items about a year ago.
She has distributed them to those with disabilities, including cancer, which Costello was diagnosed with at age 4 in the form of a Wilms' tumor, or nephroblastoma, the most common cancer of the kidneys in children.
Treatment for the ailment left Costello with weakened back muscles, nerve damage in her legs and a curvature of her spine, she said.
Tired of walking with medical canes and leg braces because of how they made her look and feel, Costello said, she decided to make her own cane and her passion grew from there.
“I've made, like, 16 canes ... I just make them based on what I think they would want ... I never have made one alike,” Costello said.
She works on the canes on nights and weekends away from her career as a clinical dependency counselor at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in Pittsburgh.
Costello whittles down salvaged wood into parts for the cane's body and the handle, then combines the pieces with Gorilla Glue, she said.
She conducts the more intricate carving with knives, sands the pieces and applies the paints and a natural stain through judicious use of masking tape, she said.
While each cane takes up to a month to make, Costello said, she feels safe in that her time is not as at much of a premium as was initially thought.
“When I first got cancer, the doctors told me I had two weeks to live,” Costello said. “It's been a very blessful two weeks.”
Her latest creation is topped with an intricately illustrated handle in the shape of a fish, and ornamented by a miniature fishing rod and reel attached to its sturdy, cylindrical body.
It pays homage to one of Smitley's favorite past times.
“This cane represents a lot of firsts for me ... it's the first one I put my initials on ... I was really inspired by Mark's story,” Costello said.
Local man is in a battle for his life
On Aug. 23, 2013, Smitley, a 52-year-old former emergency medical response official, woke up to “the worst headache of my life,” he said.
In a state of panic and inexplicably intense pain, Smitley said he frantically called his wife, Kim Smitley, to let her know he needed help quickly.
“I remember the time, it was 10:14 a.m., and I was at work,” Kim Smitley said. “He said ‘I think I'm having a stroke, there's something wrong with my head.' I just left my purse in my locker, I wanted to get home,”
As paramedics rushed Smitley to the Excela Health Frick Hospital, paramedics concluded that his issue was much worse than a headache, his wife said.
A magnetic resonance imaging exam conducted there revealed that Smitley was suffering from bleeding on the surface of his brain.
“They said they had to (transport) him to Pittsburgh (via medical helicopter),” Kim Smitley said. “I kissed him goodbye, went home and packed a bag.”
By the time she arrived at UPMC Presbyterian in the city's Shadyside area, Kim Smitley said physicians had already informed her husband he had a tumor inside his skull called a glioma.
While gliomas — which develop from glial cells — can be benign, almost 80 percent of malignant brain tumors are gliomas, according to webmd.com.
Ailment requires extensive analysis
Three days after Smitley's diagnosis, surgeons at the UPMC Presby removed a large portion of the tumor located in the rear portion of his brain, he said.
That has left him with a steel plate and screws to help fortify his skull which cause pain if the temperature outside is too hot or too cold, Smitley said.
“I get headaches, sometimes they last an hour, sometimes they last all day,” he said.
Surgeons left the remainder of the tumor inside Smitley's brain in an effort to preserve his eyesight, Smitley said.
Three long months later, following examinations by staff at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, physicians delivered the news the Smitleys feared — the tumor was malignant, he said.
“I had to start radiation treatments after the holidays last year,” Smitley said, regarding the five-day-per-week sessions over six weeks which took place at the Arnold Palmer Cancer Pavilion in Unity.
At this point, the tumor is at Stage 2, with Stage 5 being inoperable, he said.
“This tumor grows only off of brain tissue, so it won't spread to other parts of my body, but it could get more aggressive, and because my tumor has its own blood supply, the (chemotherapy) won't (affect) it,” Smitley said.
His last radiation treatment was in March, and the radiation was to have still worked in his body through September.
Smitley is scheduled for an appointment at Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh to determine if the tumor has grown. He will have to undergo such exams every three months indefinitely.
“I'm told that December to March will be critical, but I don't put time limits on stuff.”
Based on her husband's fortitude in the face of such a challenge, Kim Smitley said she is committed to maintaining the sense of resolve he possesses.
“When Mark found out it was cancer, he looked at the doctor, and he said ‘I'll do what I have to do, just tell me what I have to do, and I'll get through this,'” she said. “He's never asked why ... it's not his battle, it's our battle. If he's going to fight, then I'm going to stand beside him, and I'm going to fight, too. He's given me more strength through all of this than you'd ever know.”
Cane serves purpose in a time of need
Kim Smitley recently read a newspaper article about Costello and her cane-making talents on Facebook.
She sent her a message to tell her about Mark Smitley's situation and to request that Costello consider making a cane for him.
“The cane he had was just old and run down,” Kim Smitley said.
Costello quickly responded with a yes.
“I just asked (Kim) to tell me a little bit about (Mark), and she said he liked to fish, so I thought I could work with that,” she said.
On a recent evening in Mt. Pleasant, Mark Smitley's eyes immediately brightened as Costello presented him with her latest creation.
“It's amazing,” he said. “You couldn't get anything in the world like this, except from somebody who knows what kind of a tough time you're going through. The passion and time it must have taken.”
Couple strives to bring awareness
As the Smitleys continue to persevere, they are adamant about increasing awareness about brain cancer.
It shows with the matching T-shirts the couple often wears which each contain the words “Brain Cancer Awareness” around a gray ribbon — the symbol for the fight against the ailment.
“Everybody we see when we're out is going to see these,” Mark Smitley said. “People need to start conducting more research on this problem in hopes of finding a solution that can save lives.”
A gray ribbon is also visible on the cane which Smitley received from Costello.
A.J. Panian is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-547-5722 or firstname.lastname@example.org.