A BEAUTIFUL THING: Heartwarming act of kindness gives Yardley caregiver and wife of ALS Warrior a makeover and a chance to recharge

LAHASKA >> On one of the busiest days of the year, Yardley caregiver Marilyn Mongiello found herself being pampered inside David Witchell’s upscale salon at Peddler’s Village.

As Witchell himself personally oversaw a full complementary makeover, the mother of six looked for the right words to express her thanks to David and his business partner Galena for their gesture of kindness.

“This is a beautiful thing,” she said. “I can’t describe it any other way. It’s so very kind and thoughtful. I just don’t have the words,” she said.

Twenty months ago, her life turned upside down with her mother diagnosed with a brain tumor and her husband of 23 years, Frank, diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS.

Almost overnight, her life was transformed from wife, mother and part-time fitness instructor to full-time caregiver for her now quadriplegic husband who can’t move his legs and arms, communicates through a speech-generating device and draws nourishment from a feeding tube.

Marilyn, like all caregivers of terminally ill Americans, has faced daunting circumstances and dramatic health care decisions which have taken a toll on the family and especially Marilyn.

Before he got sick, Frank worked for the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, D.C., and was in perfect shape, competing in 100-mile marathon bicycle races. He’s now confined to a wheelchair by the debilitating disease. There is no cure for the progressive, neurodegenerative disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which robs the body of its ability to function.

Marilyn quit her job as a part-time fitness instructor to take care of her husband full-time while also raising her children, including 11-year-old twins, and helping with her mother. She has since become the “rock” on which her husband leans on for support.

“I don’t look at it as if my life’s on hold. This is my life right now,” she said. “As people we all have to accept the road that we chose. Myself, I need to have purpose. And what better purpose than to care for your loved ones?” she said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What’s important?’ To me, what I’m doing is the most important, most fulfilling thing.”

In addition to caregiving, she has worked tirelessly as her husband’s advocate, navigating through a maze of insurance forms and obstacles to acquire a new state-of-the-art standing wheelchair for him to use and a hospital bed that sits him up, swivels him around and allows her to more easily transfer him in his wheelchair.

She has also document

ed her life as a caregiver in Facebook postings that pretty much serve as a guide to anyone dealing with a loved one suffering from a terminal illness.

And if that weren’t enough, she has followed her “ALS Warrior” and wheelchair-bound husband to Washington, D.C., where they have lobbied the nation’s most powerful politicians and testified before Congress for passage of Right to Try legislation that would give terminally-ill Americans like Frank the ability to try any potential treatments not yet approved by the FDA.

While the legislation fell short of passage in 2016, they are hopeful that the new Congress gets it done. “We are resolute in our plans to go to Washington when the New Year comes to continue the fight,” she said.

It was through a mutual connection – Yardley resident Valerie Mihalek who has been working with Frank on the Right to Try legislation – that Witchell, a former caregiver himself, heard about Frank’s work and Marilyn’s dedication as a caregiver and offered her a beautiful pre-holiday gift – a brief respite from her caregiving and an opportunity to recharge.

“It’s beautiful to see that there are people like David and Galena who care about doing something good for someone who is in need,” said Mihalek. “We all go through seasons of our life where we need other people’s help, love and reassurance and someone who is dealing with a terminally ill family member, particularly a family member who has a spouse who’s dying and has six kids to take care of, it’s easy to lose yourself, to forget that you need to take care of yourself.

“Marilyn is so dedicated to taking care of not only her husband, but her mother as well, that in the midst she has forgotten to take care of herself,” said Mihalek. “When I approached David, I told him that I was hoping someone would be willing to do a random act of kindness for the holiday to help show her that she is very special.”

Witchell, who has salons in Newtown and Lahaska, smiled broadly when asked why he agreed to provide that random act.

“It’s what I live for,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation. “I love making people feel good. That’s why I got into this business,” he said. “Being able to do it for a normal, everyday client is a wonderful feeling, but being able to do it for someone who really needs a helping hand in life, it’s even better. It makes the holidays that much fuller and brighter,” he said.

Her makeover included a healthy haircut and color followed by some relaxing “me time” in the spa where she received a manicure and pedicure followed by a makeup session.

“Obviously her biggest challenge these days is maintaining herself,” said Witchell. “So we wanted to give her something that’s low maintenance, that she’ll still look beautiful and still have a youthful appearance to her,” he said. “We wanted something for her that would grow out beautifully and still give her color. That way she’ll still feel beautiful all the time, even when she doesn’t have time to pay attention to herself.”

As a color technician worked on her hair two days before Christmas, Marilyn expressed deep appreciation for the chance to “recharge my batteries so I can be a better caregiver to my loved ones.

“It also helps me spiritually,” she adds. “It can be very lonely taking care of sick people. It weakens you because you’re so afraid of the future. But I am so grateful to the community, and people like David and Galena, who have surrounded us so that it doesn’t feel like my family is traveling this path alone.

“You read about such terrible stuff all the time,” she continues. “My experience has been, out of this terrible thing that is happening to me, I’m seeing all these random acts of kindness. It’s just a true testament to how our community is so wonderful. What I’m finding is that through the darkness I see such light from so many people. And it’s so beautiful.”

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