When Kelly Conner was diagnosed with breast cancer in January, it was a shock.
There was no history of breast cancer — or any cancer, for that matter — in her family. The doctors recommended beginning chemotherapy right away. It was a lot to handle for the mother of three, with a 22-year-old son in the military stationed in South Korea and two daughters, aged nine and 13, but with her loved ones by her side, particularly her husband Albert, she wasn't facing it alone.
Albert, a Houston Dynamo season ticket holder, made a pledge that day to be by her side every step of the way. That meant every appointment, every doctor's visit, every chemo session, he was going to be there. No excuses, no exceptions.
When Kelly went into her first chemo session of 16 two months ago, anxious and a little overwhelmed by her new reality, Albert was with her. He was inspired by her, too. She was so strong, he would never truly be able to understand what she was going through. How could he possibly feel what she felt? But what he could control was ensuring she was never, ever alone.
“I feel completely helpless," Albert told MLSsoccer.com. "I watch all the nurses and doctors, the way they take care of her. She’s in good hands, that doesn’t worry me. I don’t know, it’s just hard to figure out how to be there for someone going through this.”
"Having him in the room just being my silent support in my corner has always been comforting every time I’ve gone to an appointment," Kelly added.
But as the developing COVID-19 pandemic metastasized throughout the United States, Albert's promise to Kelly was in jeopardy. MD Anderson Cancer Center — who also happen to be the Dynamo's jersey sponsor — had to evolve their rules with the evolving pandemic. That meant no visitors in chemo.
“I don't know, it just bothered me a lot because I promised her I was going to be there for everything," Albert said. "My first reaction was anger. I was very upset I wasn’t going to be able to go with her, I didn’t understand."
“I was very shocked when I first got the news from MD Anderson, I guess I never thought it was going to get to that point with the virus," Kelly added. "It was almost like, ‘how could you do that to me?’"
Their emotional, visceral reaction gave way quickly as they knew it was the safest decision. It didn't make it easier, of course, but they understood. Safety is paramount for those on the frontlines fighting COVID-19 in hospitals across the world.
Albert devised a solution.
While Kelly assured him she'd be fine and to stay home since he couldn't come in, Albert wasn't having it. He and their two daughters made and colored a poster that read "I can't be with you but I'm here." They made sure the poster would be big enough to see from a while away, with the uncertainty in hospital parking lots.
But he found a spot right by her window, then got out and set up. The poster, a lawn chair, a bottle of Pepsi, a book and his Dynamo geart. Her phone buzzed, it was her husband telling her to look out the window.
“I definitely teared up in the moment," Kelly said. The nurses did, too. "I felt a lot of love and appreciated everything he was doing.”
It's not difficult to recognize the gesture between husband and wife. We can all imagine someone we love so dear, someone we'd do anything for and overcome any obstacle. Even a hospital's no-visitors policy during a global pandemic.
“She inspires me every day, the way she handles this," Albert said. "I’m not sure I could have handled it as well as she did. Her and my mother are two of the strongest women I’ve ever met.”
The post quickly spread through the MLS community, particularly the Dynamo's. Their season ticket rep got in touch with them. They were showered with messages of support.
Dynamo fullback Zarek Valentin offered his support and pledged to host their family at a game, whenever the season returns.
This is amazing! Albert, I’d love to host you and the family at a match whenever we get back in season. Your wife is a warrior 💪🏽!! The boys and myself are sending prayers and good vibes 🙌🏽 #HoldItDown https://t.co/Z5WlB5EqGe— Zarek Valentin (@ZarekValentin) April 7, 2020
Kelly is through 12 of her 16 chemo sessions now. It's not easy, but she remains positive. Though she's feeling fatigue, body aches and headaches, she says her side effects haven't been too bad. Now, her last four chemo sessions will be with a new drug. That means the potential for new side effects.
She's anxious to find out how her body deals with it and she can't wait to ring the bell when she completes her treatment. Whether or not Albert will physically be next to her inside the hospital, she knows he's there with her. Every step of the way.