Courage Redefined: Andi's Story
Andrea Whitesell O'Connell, the inspiration for the Live Like Andi Foundation, was just 40 years old when she passed away in 2007 from Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma (ACC). Andi was diagnosed when she was just 19 years old, and although life expectancy for an ACC patient is five to seven years, Andi proved to be an exception and fought her cancer for 21 years! Andi's optimism and hope were the outward signs of her courageous battle against the disease that took her life way too early. Her spirit and her profound influence on those around her live on in her legacy.
The following excerpts from Andi's eulogy, given by her husband Michael O'Connell, give us all insight into her amazing character and her determination to "Live, Laugh, Love."
Happiness and Hope
What is true happiness? What is the meaning of life? Most people search for these answers their entire life never realizing one or both. Andrea not only knew the answers to both of these questions but also lived them every day of her life. Look around this church. Look at all of the people she touched. Every person here could come up and tell the others what a beautiful person she was inside and out. She lit up a room when she walked in. She made you feel warm when she smiled. But there was really more to it than that. She offered every one of us hope. Hope that no matter how difficult a situation we encounter or how dreadfully sick we may become there is ALWAYS HOPE. Hope that gives you the strength to move forward. Hope that gives you courage to endure the pain. Hope that you will not only get to live to see tomorrow – but that there might even be a shoe sale at Macy's!
Cancer by the Numbers
Andi never gave up. Many of the people who knew her never had any idea what she endured. Over 21 years she endured seven life-threatening surgeries – and wore her scars like beauty marks! She walked into more than 100 rounds of radiation with a smile and determination. She was injected with chemo over 200 times with no medical evidence to suggest that the painful side effects she was about to endure would even work. On nearly 40 occasions she was given the "bad news" that her cancer had spread or grown. She winced and accepted almost 1,000 needle pokes. She said "this fight" was her job. She joked that she fought cancer Monday through Friday - but took weekends off! She never admitted she was dying until a mere 30 hours before she died, an astonishing 184,000 hours after she was diagnosed! She never asked "why me?" She never questioned how or why she carried this burden. Yet she proclaimed to everyone she met "I am SO lucky. Yes lucky!" Lucky that she was able to fight as long as she did. Lucky to have the best friends and family one could ever ask for. Lucky, as she said before she died, that she had met the love of her life. And the most lucky to be able to have her three beautiful children.
Family and Friends
Ah yes, her children. Her kids quickly took over as Andi's real job in life. Tyler, you have her eyes, her smile and sensitivity. She was so proud of everything you did. Gabrielle, you have her love of cheering life, sense of humor and ability to shop till you drop. Olivia, you have your mom's love and care for your 'babies.' Your sun-kissed freckles will always remind us of your mom. All three of you were her life; she will always live in your hearts. So don't be surprised if you hear a little voice that says, "be careful," "did you put on sunscreen?" or "kids, play somewhere where I can see you!"
I have never known someone to have as many "good friends" as Andi. She loved her friends so dearly. Every one of them from grade school to college to Pembrooke to our neighbors to her girls group, "The Martini Mamas." They shared their lives, love and hopes with one another. I know they will keep a special place for Andi with them forever. And lest we not mention her 'sisters.' You didn't know Andi had sisters? Sherry Dillon Bergum, Teresa Ripperger Radtke and Michele Young King shared Andrea's life. The good times and bad. She could always count on them. I thank them dearly for that and will always love them.
But her best and closest friends were her parents. Andrea called her mom EVERY day of her life at 8:30 a.m. But as you could guess that was probably the first of two or three calls between them that day. Her daddy was a great sense of pride for Andi; she beamed in his presence. Terry and Julia were her guiding inspiration to be the mom and person she became. She was so proud of big brother Brian and she cherished the few years that her younger brother Jeff lived in Michigan. My family quickly fell in love with the girl with the big curls from Indiana. My mom knew right away I had fallen for her.
Cheetah Print, High Heels and a Beautiful Smile!
Andrea was glamorous! God gave her style and grace. When we had occasion to go out at night (a "date" as she always called them) as usual I would be waiting for her at the kitchen island. After what seemed like eternity my attention would be instinctively drawn to our stairs. I would first see her high heels and long beautiful legs as she descended the stairs. It seemed as if she was in slow motion as she fastened her earring and gently bent to pull the strap of her high heel before she turned to me and smiled. It was as if I were seeing her again for the first time.
An Angel Among Us
Andrea always worried that she was causing all who loved her any worry or despair. Just three weeks ago as she prepared for her Gamma Knife surgery to her brain tumors the doctors proceeded to affix a 'halo' around her head to deliver the radiation. As I knelt down at her feet and held her hands she smiled at me as the screws went into her head. She squeezed my hands and asked, "are you OK?" Andi - we are all OK because of you. Your life will never be defined by how you died but how you LIVED! We can all carry her love of life and feel her true happiness with each of us every day for the rest of our lives. Andrea, you will be greatly missed but we know your spirit will live on.