Who was Jane?

Feature — Jane Dybowski died of NET cancer December 10, 2010-the Jane in Walking with Jane-

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NET cancer killed her body — but not her spirit

By Meg Flanagan

FALL RIVER, MAss. Jane Dybowski was a modern renaissance woman: a scientist, a lover of literature and writing, and an accomplished amateur athlete. A longtime teacher at a high school in Westport, Mass., she was preparing for retirement and the next big adventure when she got the news that changed her life.

She was diagnosed with neuroendocrine tumor (NET) cancer, a slow-growing cancer that most often forms in the digestive system. A few months later, on Dec. 10, 2010, she was dead. She was 56 years old.

More than a year later, her name and legacy live on — through her widower, her students and every person with a relentless thirst for knowledge.

Dybowski’s thirst for knowledge, and her desire to pass that knowledge on to others, started when she was growing up in Fall River, Mass., an old industrial city by the sea. After graduating from the city high school in 1972, she double-majored in Biology and Chemistry at Bridgewater State College. She graduated in 1976, winning the William B. Vinal Award in Zoology.

“Jane had enough credits for a master’s, but didn’t get one because the credits were split between biology, chemistry and physics,” Harry Proudfoot, Dybowski’s husband of 21 years and a retired high school English and journalism teacher, said. “Jane was one of the three brightest people I ever met.”

Dybowski’s love of science continued into the classroom. She began teaching at Westport High School in 1979, eventually covering nearly every course the science department offered during her 30-year career.

“Ms. Dybowski was one of the most dedicated teachers I have ever met,” 2008 WHS graudate Emily Allen said. “She was tough. She didn’t allow any slacking off in her classroom, but that was because she wanted each and every one of her students to succeed to their fullest.”

Most recently, Dybowski had taught Advanced Placement Biology, Chemistry and Physics. She had a reputation as a teacher with high standards, and she expected the best from her students and demanded hard work.

“I think she was brilliant,” Allen said. “I never had a question for which she had no answer.”

Teaching, though, was just one side of Dybowski.

“Any time kids look at teachers, it’s the tip of a very large iceberg,” Proudfoot said. “She was as passionate about everything she did as she was in the classroom.”

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Dybowski and Proudfoot had a strong marriage, with a deep love and respect for each other that many commented on and sought to emulate.

“Our relationship was so close–I can’t compare it to anyone else,” Proudfoot said.

He never thought of their relationship as special or extraordinary, however, until one day in the summer of 2010.

“We were walking near the Big Mamie (in Fall River), holding hands. A young woman, 20 or 21, was walking toward us listening to her iPod,” he said. “She looked up, saw Jane and I, pulled her headphones off and said, ‘I want what you have.’”

She was just one of many people who commented on the strength and love evident in their marriage. Nurses and doctors in the hospital also remarked on the extraordinary nature of the deep love between Dybowski and Proudfoot. They have been credited with teaching others how marriage works and with saving marriages.

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Dybowski had an incredible joie de vivre. She solved Newtonian physics problems for fun. She enjoyed gardening, interior design and fine arts. She and her husband designed, built and landscaped their home together in the early 1990s. In retirement, Dybowski had planned to take up painting seriously, and was already accomplished in other arts.

“She made an ornament for our tree in cross-stitch every year,” Proudfoot said. “Sometimes she designed it herself. It always reflected our year.”

Allen also noted her zest for life.

“Her energy always amazed me,” she said. “She never stopped moving — not for one minute.”

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In addition to her other talents, Dybowski was a shark on the tennis court. She routinely played singles and doubles against both male and female partners.

“She had every shot you could imagine,” Proudfoot said. “She didn’t think she had any.”

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Through all of her talents wove Dybowski’s legendary humor.

“Just because she was tough doesn’t mean she wasn’t funny,” Allen said. “In fact, she was absolutely hilarious. She was quick on her feet, and if you could keep up with her, she could keep you entertained all class long.”

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Even as her health declined, Dybowski kept her humor.

“Two weeks before she died, they had just installed the permanent pacemaker and feeding tube. She wasn’t supposed to be hungry. The cardiac surgeon came in and asked how she was feeling,” Proudfoot said. “She said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to eat, but if there were a cow out in the corridor, that cow would be in trouble!’ She had the doctors and nurses in stitches.”

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Doctors discovered the NET cancer in mid-August of 2010. Dybowski and Proudfoot both acknowledged how badly the deck was stacked against survival.

“Her heart was in bad shape,” Proudfoot said. “We figured there was a 10 percent chance of survival, but she believed she would beat it. (We) tried everything to beat it.”

Dybowski continued to function fairly normally, however, until mid-November. She routinely walked the block between the two hospitals where she received treatments in Boston. She refused to use a wheelchair and insisted on administering her own medical injections.

“On Veterans Day, we went to a regular check-up,” Proudfoot said. “She was offered a wheelchair and she turned it down, as she always did. But that night was the first time I needed to help her up the stairs when we got home.”

But her doctors had noted the severity of her situation and the progress of the disease, moving a surgery scheduled for later in November to the next week. Dybowski and her husband returned to the hospital shortly before the surgery.

“I left Jane at the entrance while I went to park the car,” Proudfoot said. “When I returned, she was in the lobby, but also in a wheelchair. She said they wanted her on the seventh floor of the building across the street and that she knew she couldn’t walk that far.”

The surgery came just in time, as Dybowski’s right heart valves had completely stopped functioning. The doctors reported the surgery was successful. The next few days showed continued improvement.

Then, Dybowski suddenly stopped improving and began a sudden decline. Even then, she was able to make light of the situation.

“She needed a scan of her lungs, but the scanner in the building was shut down for the night,” Proudfoot said. “They needed to go to another building through a tunnel under the street and up nine floors. Jane said, ‘You mean we’re going on a road trip? I’m up for a road trip!’”

After she passed away, Proudfoot found and thanked each person who had helped to care for his wife.

“I thanked the male night nurse who had been with Jane immediately post-surgery and had assisted with turning her many times thereafter,” Proudfoot said. “He said, ‘You don’t have to thank me for anything. Caring for your wife was one of the great honors of my life.’”

The numbers in attendance at Jane’s funeral and wake spoke to her impact on the community. Her local doctors’ office, nurses and doctors from Boston and former high school students from all over the country attended one or both of the events to remember her life. More than 700 people attended the wake. Between 300 and 500 attended the funeral.

Allen reflected on her time as Jane’s student with love and gratitude.

“She was an amazing teacher, one of the rare kinds who truly cared about her students reaching their full potential,” Allen said. “What made her such a great teacher, I think, is because she was such a wonderful person and truly one of a kind.”

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Other students approached her husband to share their memories of his late wife.

“As teachers, we don’t know the influence we have on kids’ lives,” he said. “The number of kids whose lives she changed, that she helped to tell them there was a place for them in the world…that’s who she was. I heard students say ‘Ms. Dybowski changed my life.’ ‘Ms Dybowski is the reason I became a science teacher or study science.’

“Every person she met, she had an impact on,” Proudfoot said. “My wife hit those people.”

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Dybowski’s legacy lives on through the more than $11,000 in donations made in her name to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. In addition, there is the Walking with Jane Foundation that Proudfoot founded to raise awareness and to help work toward a cure for NET cancer.

Proudfoot said Dybowski lived her life fully, with tenacity, hope and courage. These traits were emphasized in her 2011 Westport High School yearbook quote — echoing the advice she frequently gave her students when they encountered a difficult problem — in which she gave a nod to the school mascot:

“We are not wimps; we are Wildcats!”

(This story provided by Walking with Jane. Inc., a 501 (c) (3) non-profit dedicated to eradicating NET cancer. For more information about NET cancer or Carcinoid Syndrome contact walkingwithjane@gmail.com or visit our website at walkingwithjane.org.

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