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Sunday 25 August 2019
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Ophelia Rodriguez : Fighting Cancer From the Front Lines

story and photos by MIRANDA OSBORN
Ophelia Rodriguez’s mother died very young at 51 years of age from complications of Multiple Sclerosis. Her father at 83, from complications of Alzheimer’s and Lung Cancer. Her brother, who was closest in age to her, died on Rodriguez’ 50th birthday in June of 2018.
Rodriguez herself would not escape the apparent family traits of medical malaise. She was diagnosed with Ductal Carcinoma Breast Cancer in October of 2018. She had surgery the same month to remove the cancer and is currently receiving radiation treatment, and is due to have reconstruction surgery upon completion and healing from radiation.
Life is not what Rodriguez thought it was before her diagnosis. “I now know that it can change in an instant, and that I need to focus more on enjoying it and less on making plans,” she explains. Some of her future plans are no longer due to the diagnosis, and Rodriguez acknowledges that that’s okay. “In the face of illness I’ve learned to let go, live, and be happy. My goal for today – to help someone in need, to put a smile on the face of someone sitting in the room with me waiting to have treatment.”
The youngest of seven siblings, Rodriguez remembers growing up in a very tight knit household; her father the owner of a very successful trucking company and also very philanthropic in the Rodriguez’ community, supporting many less fortunate people whom he met along his daily ventures. Both Rodriguez’ parents also had a passion for children in need.
Born in Jersey City, a young Rodriguez would move to North Carolina as child as a result of her father’s business, where she lived there until the age of 17. All of her siblings graduated from high school and went to college. But not Rodriguez. “Me….I graduated early and joined the Army.”
She was 16 and in the reserves before going active duty. Naturally, her parents were totally against this “not the norm” for the family, she reminisces, but they both gave consent, and off she went. “I was determined to prove to my father that women did belong in the military, and that he and mom gave me all of the strength and smarts to survive such a challenging adventure, at such a very young age,” Rodriguez continues.
One of Rodriguez’ very close older cousins was the catalyst for the military decision. Her cousin had joined the Navy and would send a young 16-year-old Rodriguez letters and pictures about all of her ventures. “I knew that this was something that I wanted to do, all while helping to make the world a better place,” Rodriguez explains. Like her parents, she too had a passion for helping the less fortunate, but wanted to help those who were in places that didn’t have formal resource systems in place. “The Army was tough, but I felt as if I were tougher,” she says with a smile.
A toughness she definitely showed as she transitioned through the ranks to becoming a drill sergeant. “It was a position of which I’ve always respected,” Rodriguez adds, noting the criteria of being fit, disciplined and stern. “I’d been that all of my life, so this seemed as if it were another challenge calling my name.” Not to mention she “loved the wool headgear (hat) worn while in this position. It garnered much respect, as not everyone makes it through the course, or endured their entire tour, which was two years….many, many years ago!”
Her career path would change after the military. She considers fundraising her second career, and the military her first. After the military she held positions in development and foundation departments at two universities, the Department of Defense, and was also a government contractor. Fundraising, community outreach, and events sort of “fell in her lap” as Rodriguez’ first civilian job after the military. “Luckily I enjoyed it!” she laughs.
In 2008, she started at Hospice Savannah and has held three positions in the foundation. A very revered organization in the community that provides care to patients and their families during the most critical time in life; death. Because Hospice Savannah is a nonprofit organization, all funds that support the organization and the non-medical treatment of patients, their families, and the community at large, are raised via donors, events, will bequests, and Rodriguez’ very favorite… the Hospice Savannah Thrift Shoppe on Hwy 80 in Pooler.
The shop opened in April 2016 and is supported with donations from the community, families of those whom Hospice Savannah has provided care for, as well as some local retailers. “It gives me energy and reassurance every time I walk through the doors,” Rodriguez explains. “It shows me that hospice care is necessary and appreciated.”
Hospice is something Rodriguez takes very personally as her mother was under hospice care in North Carolina when she was a youngster. When others were out being teenagers, Rodriguez and her family had clinical hospice staff in and out of their home to care for her mother. Rodriguez’ father was also cared for by hospice in North Carolina for a short while before he died, and her brother passed while under hospice care in June. “My siblings and I were introduced to hospice care at very young ages, and are full aware of the quality care that they provide,” Rodriguez explains. “Hospice allowed my father to continue to run his business, and for my siblings and I to have as normal lives as possible during my mother’s very ill times. They were there to care for her and do things that we couldn’t.”
Rodriguez would get to Hospice Savannah after a government contract landed her in Savannah in 2007. “I had a few other choices, but I took Savannah,” she explains, wanting to be close to her family in North Carolina. But after 9 months she opted to resign her position as a contractor, soon after working for a major factory in the area that had been awarded a large military contract for making vehicles to be used in the middle east. The factory however, had a massive layoff, and Rodriguez found herself in the bunch, a “last hired, first fired” type of deal. She stayed home a few months to enjoy the summer with her now 26-year-old son, and then went on a purposeful job search.
“I needed something that I enjoyed, that was helpful to the community in which I resided, and didn’t keep me ball and chained to a desk or a building,” she says with a smile. “I came to Hospice Savannah via an employment placement agency. Just as employers hire via placement agencies to determine that they get quality employees, I too needed to be sure that I was giving my time and experience to a worthy employer. I needed the right fit, and found it here.”
Whilst not at the shop daily, Rodriguez manages Hospice Savannah’s annual giving program, events and third party fundraisers. Add to that, the breast cancer diagnosis in October. “It changed me…and me includes my plans, my outlook, ideals and goals,” Rodriguez explains. “It has increased my faith and certainly grew my relationship with God. It’s made me less rigid in terms of not needing to know everything, control everything, and trying to be everything for everybody,” she continues. “I’m even more compassionate for the less fortunate, especially those who are dealing with illnesses.” Her own, resulting in a partial mastectomy, and now radiation treatments. “I’m great actually!” Rodriguez says with amazing alacrity. Although she does admit to having her moments, especially when she hears stories of reoccurrence, when she feels the pain, or when she looks at her breasts in the mirror. “Quality of life is my goal, and so I focus on that the best I can. Some days my big smile hides a lot of pain and uncertainty. But, I remind myself of healing, faith and God’s promise…just for me,” Rodriguez adds whilst closing her eyes.
Given so much history, it is no wonder Rodriguez is so passionate about sharing her story with others, especially women. “Cancer is not the death sentence that it used to be,” she explains, noting medicine and treatments have changed much, and for the better. “To hear that word makes most shiver, and it did me too! I am a very fit woman, always have been. I thought that somehow this was a mistake, but it wasn’t.”
Rodriguez attributes her recovery to her health and fitness regimen, and with a message of utmost importance. “I would encourage every woman to check your own breasts and get your mammograms!”
Rodriguez found her lump less than 90 days after a clean mammogram report. “Take care of yourself, eat healthy, incorporate some type of daily physical exercise or motion. It’s easier to fight when you’ve already conditioned your body for it. Lastly, take care of yourself mentally. Stress can cause great harm to the body.”
Rodriguez has just one goal; to live. According to research, her chances of the cancer never returning, while taking the cancer pill for the next five years is about 90%, although she spends a fair amount of time meditating and reminding herself that tomorrow is not promised. She still has big plans; to be totally debt free within the next two years, to physically gain more muscle as she is able, and to mentally stay in her daily meditations, read bible scriptures and try to apply them to her life. “My mind and life have changed – all other goals are currently under construction,” she adds with a smile.
For more information visit hospicesavannah.org/thrift or visit the Fortune Plaza location at 331 US Highway 80 East, Tuesday through Friday, 10 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 to 5 p.m. (912) 629-1122.




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