A group of Chilliwack healthcare workers and others are raising money for cancer research after a nurse and her unborn baby died of cancer.
Emergency room nurse Sarah Penner was eight months pregnant with her first child when she lost the baby in April 2019. She later found out she had an unspecified gynecological cancer. She died three months later on July 13, 2019 at the age of 35.
Her family and coworkers at Chilliwack General Hospital (CGH) were heartbroken.
“When Sarah and her baby died from cancer there was a large outpouring of emotion from everywhere in the hospital. It was very upsetting for everybody,” said Dr. Mark Ballard, regional medical director.
What set her apart from other nurses was that her compassion never faded, said fellow CGH nurse Travis Hubert.
“No matter how violent, abusive, unruly or obnoxious a patient could be, she was always able to find the good in those she cared for,” Hubert said.
Sarah’s coworkers wanted to recognize her in a meaningful way, Ballard said. So back before the pandemic hit, he and Hubert asked Sarah’s husband, Mark Penner, if they could create a cycling team for the Tour de Cure in her memory.
He agreed and Team Sarah was born.
The Tour de Cure (formerly the Ride to Conquer Cancer) is a fundraiser event for the BC Cancer Foundation.
“Some joined for Sarah but some also joined for their own personal journeys with cancer,” Ballard said.
When COVID hit, and as healthcare workers became stressed and overworked, Ballard realized that Team Sarah had taken on an additional meaning.
“In the hospital, COVID has led to increased rates of physician and nurse burnout. There has been a decrease in the feeling of well-being by all healthcare providers,” he said. “Team Sarah has helped many of the staff feel connected to something that allows them to increase their resiliency to burnout and to improve the feeling that we are all part of a larger healthcare team. Thus Team Sarah has also helped the frontline workers continue to provide excellent care during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Tour de Cure was cancelled last year due to COVID, so Team Sarah has had more than a year and a half to train, raise funds and bond together. Now Ballard (team captain), Hubert and 27 other cyclists are gearing up for the 100-kilometre ride through Abbotsford which takes place on Saturday, Aug. 28.
And that’s not the only fundraiser in memory of Sarah.
While coworkers have been collecting donations in support of their upcoming ride, others like Sarah’s family and friends have been raising funds through a private music festival called Skreagfest.
The name comes from Sarah’s maiden name Kreager. Using her first initial and last name, she was known as ‘Skreags’ on social media. When she was sick and in the hospital, the inaugural Skreagfest was planned for August 2019. Initially, the goal was to raise funds to help Sarah and Mark as she stayed in hospital undergoing cancer treatment.
Sarah died just a few weeks before Skreagfest and so the funds were donated to the Chilliwack Hospice Society and the oncology department instead.
“Now we have to keep it going,” husband Mark said.
Saturday, Aug. 21 marked the third annual Skreagfest. Money raised from last year’s event and this year’s is going to Team Sarah.
“Sarah was the kindest person you could ever meet. She had this glowing radiance of love about her. She was very comforting to patients,” said friend and fellow nurse Meghan McCusker.
She and Mark were busy Saturday (Aug. 21) with Skreagfest, and are also working together as the support crew and cheerleaders for Team Sarah in this weekend’s Tour de Cure.
When asked how Sarah would feel about all the efforts her coworkers, family and friends have been doing over the past two years to bring in money for cancer research, Mark said he knows his wife would be impressed.
“She would be head over heels for sure. She would love it. My favourite part is how it keeps her spirit alive. It brings people together which she would have loved, too.”
Nurse Hubert agrees Sarah’s spirit is still shining.
“For me personally, Sarah not only made me a better nurse, she also made me a better person,” Hubert said. “To say she was loved by her colleagues, friends and family was an understatement, and while she is no longer with us, her legacy of love, acceptance and grace will live on forever.”
To donate to Team Sarah, go to tourdecure.ca.