Triumph Over Fear

(David Stuck)

In 1989, Lilly Garonzik’s 9-year-old daughter Jackie asked her, “Mommy, can I sleep with you tonight?”

“If you’re quiet,” Lilly told her.

The next thing Lilly remembered was the sound of Jackie screaming.

Lilly, then 46, had a grand mal seizure in bed next to her daughter. “They took me to the hospital, gave me an MRI, and said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but you have a tumor.’

“I was so mad,” she remembered. The doctors had given Lilly the news of a low-grade malignancy cancerous brain tumor with “Jackie standing right there. I said, ‘Get me out of here.’”

And far from being shocked, Lilly says she felt vindicated. “From 18 through 40 I suffered from horrible migraines. I used to have to go lay down, take a Tylenol and cry till the headache went away,” Lilly said. But she had to get up, because her kids needed her. “I had to take Jackie to school and make her lunch. I did all that.” When she sought treatment,  “nobody would believe me,” she said. “They said I was crazy.”

Thirteen years later, in 2002, a seizure and fall that sent Lilly via medevac to University of Maryland’s R  Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center revealed a second brain tumor, which also had low-grade malignancy. In another 13 years, 2015, there was a third tumor, this time with more aggressive pathology (grade 3) than the first two. Less than nine months later in 2016, a fourth tumor, also grade 3, tried (but again failed) to topple Lilly Garonzik.

Today, nearly 30 years since her first cancer diagnosis, Lilly Garonzik has survived four brain tumors and countless medical problems related to her illness and their treatments. (Migraines aren’t one of them, however. “After the first surgery, I never had a migraine again,” Lilly said.) Although she was diagnosed with a “new” cancer — ovarian — this year, she and her family are still standing.

“I believed in God,” said Lilly, now 75, who was raised Modern Orthodox by her Russian-American mother and  Palestinian Jewish father. “God helped me. And so much love for my children. That’s what got me through: I have a lot to live for.”

Family Comes First

“My mother’s faith in God is what guides her, and it was part of our upbringing, too,” said Michelle Garonzik of Pikesville, the oldest of Lilly’s four children, and a member of Chevrei Tzedek Congregation. Now 52, Michelle was 23 when her mother had her first seizure. At the time, Michelle wasn’t living with her mother and father (Harvey Garonzik, who died in 2013) and her three younger siblings, Ira, Michael and Jackie.

But she jumped in to help. “Being the oldest, I worried about my siblings,” she said. The hardest part for Michelle was figuring out the logistics — keeping her family functioning as they all traversed, blindfolded, the maze of the medical  system.

“We had no knowledge,” Michelle said. But what they lacked in experience, the siblings made up for in drive. “We were aggressive kids, I guess, in a way. We’d push and push and push. … We just kind of figured it out. Back then, you couldn’t just scan things. We’d pick up the phone and pay a cab driver — this was before HIPAA — to take films from one place to another.”

The siblings synchronized their lives to make their mom’s treatment schedule work. Michelle’s younger brother Ira, in his first year of college, stayed home during the day, allowing him to take his mother to radiation treatment, and went to class at night. Michelle worked days.

Financial issues, Michelle said,  compounded the crisis.

“We grew up four of us in a three- bedroom apartment with a lot of  financial issues, but a lot of love,” she said of their childhood at the Milbrook Park Apartments. Their mother always told them, “Things will get better one day, I promise.”

Michelle recalled: “My brother [Ira] and little sister spent most of their time in the synagogue praying” after Lilly was diagnosed the first time. “We all went to school, we all strived for something, we all worked hard.”

Michelle is a nurse who manages the neurosurgery practice of her brother, Dr. Ira Garonzik, 47, a Pikesville resident and member of Beth El Congregation. Three of the four Garonzik children now work in the medical profession. Only Michael, a 51-year-old Owings Mills resident, who runs a stand at a flea market, chose a different field. Jackie, 38, whom Michelle calls the baby and her mother calls “honeybun” and “my pumpkin pie,” is known outside the family as Dr. Jacqueline  Garonzik Wang, a transplant surgeon who lives in Pikesville.

Michelle’s medical training didn’t suffice to shield her against the trauma in 2002 when her mother, who was doing fine, “just fell on the floor,” Lilly said. The fall was caused by a grand mal seizure that, once again, led to the discovery of another brain tumor.

“I heard her fall,” said Michelle, who was with her mother that day. “I was a nurse, and I still panicked.”

The incident stayed with Michelle. “I had nightmares. I felt like I was living in a numb world. I was in shock.”

From Hardship Comes  Inspiration

Ira, then a neurosurgery resident, was at Disney World with his family when he got the call.

By then, Ira said, he “knew a lot of  information about my mom’s condition. I knew about her pathological diagnosis. At that point, it became a little bit of a challenge for me, because knowing that information, it would always stay in the back of my mind.”

But the second diagnosis wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. “Usually,” he said, “when these things come back, they come back more aggressive. But this one had the same pathology.”

Johns Hopkins Hospital’s neurosurgery director, Dr. Henry Brem, who performed Lilly’s first surgery, also  performed her second.

“When I would take my mom to her visits,” Ira said, “I’d tell Dr. Brem, ‘I’m going to come back and train under you and become a neurosurgeon.’

“I always got good grades and knew that I wanted to become a doctor. I played a lot of sports and thought I’d be an orthopedic surgeon.”

His interest switched after his mom’s diagnosis.

In college at Johns Hopkins University, Ira took neuroscience, psychology and brain anatomy courses in addition to pre-med prerequisites. He was admitted to Emory University School of Medicine.

“While I was away at med school, I would tell Mom to remind Dr. Brem I’m going to come back,” he said.

When Ira graduated from Emory, he was one of 30  people who interviewed for three spots in Johns Hopkins’ seven-year neurosurgery residency. Ira was admitted and trained under the doctor who had saved his mother’s life twice.

“My mom has always faced many adversities, with her brain tumor being one of them,” Ira said. “She’s  always faced them head on, never backing down, never even showing fear, being very confident she’s going to get through it. Those characteristics she demonstrated have been very helpful for  shaping not just myself but all my siblings in facing life’s adversities. She made me feel like whatever challenge I have in front of me is nothing  compared to what she had to deal with.”

A New Routine

Oligodendroglioma is the  official, beastly name for Lilly’s most beastly of diseases. Although her children say she’s faced all four battles  unafraid, Lilly said she has been scared, even if her  children didn’t know it.

“By the third and fourth one,” Lilly said, “it’s still a little scary, but not quite as scary.” The worst, she said, is getting an MRI. “The MRI’s real scary.”

“We have this ritual,”  Michelle said. “Every MRI she gets, I go in with her. I sit in the room. When I was pregnant I sat right outside the room.”

It meant a lot to Lilly: “Every test I had, I could look out and see her sitting there.”

With all this medical treatment, there have been some side effects. By the time the third tumor appeared in 2016, Michelle noticed some  forgetfulness in her mother.

“After the first time, she had photon radiation. It hits other sections of the brain,” Michelle said. “What we’re learning now is that it has long-term side effects on the brain. People weren’t living that long after this. She’s up there in terms of the survival of this type of tumor.” But the treatment causes “radiation-induced dementia over a long, long period of time.”

By 2016, treatment had advanced, Michelle said. Her mother was in the first group of patients to receive proton radiation at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center right after it opened.

Since the third and fourth surgeries, Lilly has had some cognition and balance issues,  Michelle said. Although Lilly briefly stayed in assisted living,  the new diagnosis of ovarian cancer prompted Lilly’s move into Jackie’s house with Jackie and her husband.

Michelle visits her every day. “We’ve had to safety- proof some things in the house. We have someone here 24-7,” Michelle said. “She’s on eight different medications, and they change at various times.”

Michelle and her siblings help Lilly get to her doctor’s appointments. “Gynecologist, eye specialist, neurologist, cardiologist, GP, oncologist, proton specialist,” Michelle said. “I think there are 20. She’s got a lot of doctors.”

The coordination of their mother’s schedule and care has brought Michelle and Jackie closer.

“There’s always been that big age difference between the two of us,” Michelle said. “And with her job, she’s  always running, she’s always out of town, she’s always in surgery.  [But] we have to talk now. We’ve talked about that, how it’s bringing us closer. We like it.”

A Compassionate View

Jackie remembers with admiration the way her siblings reacted when their mother first got sick.

“My siblings rose to the challenge,” she said. “Michelle and Ira, despite being only young adults themselves, stepped in and kept us all together. They made sure the bills were paid, there was food on the table and a roof over our heads.”

Tears fill Michelle’s eyes when she speaks of her 9-year-old sister jolted out of sleep by her mother thrashing beside her. But Jackie says that for her, that’s an important memory.

“I never want to forget how I felt when I found my mother having her first seizure, and also how I felt when we struggled as a family to keep things moving forward through each of her operations,” Jackie said. “While you can never truly understand what someone is going through, I try to  remember the fear, worry and distress I had. I try to be compassionate and understanding and do whatever I can to make my patients’ lives easier.”

Michelle also feels she’s in a unique position to  empathize with patients. “Even knowing the system, it’s hard to navigate.” Many patients, she said, “don’t have the resources or knowledge of how to work through the system; what things they need, how to coordinate. I feel like everyone diagnosed should have a cancer coordinator, to walk them through every step of the way.”

Today, the bulk of Ira’s practice is taking care of  patients with spinal disorders, but he sees his mother in every patient he meets. “I see every patient as a person with a family, with children, with a spouse. I remember all the feelings we had when we were given the news. When you’re on the other side, as a patient, it’s extremely educational for a physician. Not just in practicing medicine, but in being a good human being and doing the right thing. Most of that goes back to our upbringing and how we were raised as kids.”


‘She’s Won’

Lilly recently completed five cycles of chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, which shrank her ovarian tumor. She’ll do one more so her surgery can be less  invasive, Michelle said.

The Garonzik siblings  believe Lilly’s indefatigable strength and attitude will carry her through this next challenge, just as before.

“I would not be half the person I am today without her,” Jackie said. “She fought to keep her family together and to keep food on the table and always did so with a smile on her face. She never blamed others for her hardship — she just put her head down and did what she needed to do to survive. Even though we had little, I always felt loved,  optimistic and that I could accomplish whatever I put my mind to because of the resilience and optimism she instilled in me.”

“My mom has always supported me in times of need and never once judged me,” Michael said.

Ira is relieved this cancer wasn’t another brain tumor. “I didn’t want it to be something within my area of  practice to get her. I always wanted her to beat the brain tumor,” he said.

Even now, fighting stage 4 ovarian cancer, Lilly was  focused almost exclusively on Michelle’s son Bryce’s bar mitzvah in June. It was “the only thing she’d talk to me about,” Ira said.

Lilly not only attended, she danced.

“Seeing her dance with her grandkids,” Ira said, “I thought to myself, ‘She’s won.’”

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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  1. This is a story of family love and how it works. I am so very sorry for your loss, but so pleased how you were and are there for your family (and patients). May Lilly rest in peace knowing that her life gave life …..a success!

  2. I have known the Garonzik family my entire life. They are an amazing bunch to say the least!!! You have always been there for my family and words can not express the love I have for each and every one of you. Your dedication and passion have continued to give your mom the will to survive! It encourages her each and every day to triumph over any obsticle she encounters.
    Michelle, Michael, Ira, and Jackie… you have been blessed with a wonderful mother, and she intern, has been blessed with all of you!
    Keep fighting Lillian…. I will continue praying for you!
    Hugs and Love Always,

  3. Dear Lillian, I came to visit you after surgery not knowing what to expect and there you were sitting in a chair smiling and you still are. Love Iris

  4. I love this story such much. Michelle is a friend of mine. I remember her sharing with me many time the struggles her mother faced with her diagnosis.
    I wish that everyone in the world could read this. Especially, those families that really struggle both temporaly and spiritually. It’s a story that proves anything is achievable with the Grace of God and the support of family. Mrs. Lilly Garonzick you are an amazingly blessed woman that has and your Legacy of bravely will be remembered by many especially your children and the rest of your posterity.

  5. My Dear Lilly and family-
    Love is what you always gave to your family…I remember Ira was in his first year at Hopkins and when you were diagnosed with the brain tumor, he knew you had to be at the hospital everyday for treatment and he was thinking of not attending college but, he went to the Dean at Hopkins and they let him take classes at night for the Freshman year(which is something they never do)…But, they saw the passion in him to take care of you… You have the most wonderful , caring children and they are only that way because of the love you showed them growing up..Michelle, Jackie, Michael and Ira, I am so proud to
    call you my family..
    A beautiful article and so well written….. Aunt Sybil

    I am so proud to call them my nieces and nephews . Beautiful article and so well written…..

  6. That is such an uplifting story and I personally know two of the family who are such a wonderful asset to medicine and patients. May god bless you. All


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