Teenager Morrow Toomey finds inspiration in Special Olympics
On a cold stark winter’s day in December 2009, Morrow Toomey listened in shock as her doctor diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A fog washed over what had been a clear and bright view of life for the wide-eyed 15 year-old. Over the next three months, she underwent intensive treatment for the disease at UNC Hospitals. It was a difficult time, full of uncertainty and fear.
“It was definitely an interruption in life,” said Toomey now 18 years-old. “You don’t think about cancer at that age in some ways you have this sense of immortality. I kept thinking how is this possible?”
With the help of good doctors and the support of her family she successfully finished the treatment. However, she was left mentally and physically drained and felt socially secluded. And while treatment was over, she was still making frequent trips to the hospital for check-ups and scans and there is always a lingering anxiety about getting sick again. So with the help of her mom and the hospital, she formed a support group for teenage cancer survivors. The group used photography as a way to convey their feelings and talk through their anxiety and fears.
There aren’t many resources for teens fighting cancer,” Toomey said. “I just felt compelled to help others. Photography is a big hobby for some of my family members. I didn’t have an interest until after my diagnosis but I really enjoy it now. ”
A black and white image of a Styrofoam wig head bathed in light on one side and darkness on the other most clearly depicts her feelings about her battle. “The shadows and light illustrated the contrast of hope and fear,” said Toomey of one of her most powerful photographs. The hospital was so impressed with her group’s photographs and artwork they were included in the ‘I CANcer – a public journey’ exhibit and on display at University Mall in Chapel Hill the past two years.
Her photography has evolved over the past couple of years; she no longer takes shots that remind her of her cancer or the treatment. In fact, some of her favorite pictures aren’t even ones she’s taken. They are pictures she is in and posing with her good friends, Special Olympics athletes from Orange County.
“After treatment, I viewed life in a different way,” said Toomey. “I was inspired to give back and get involved in the community. I wanted to try new experiences and share of myself. “
In the summer of 2010, Toomey decided to put her inspiration into action and share her love of swimming. She volunteered as a Special Olympics Orange County aquatics coach. At her first practice, she walked in anxious but left grinning ear-to-ear.
“I immediately loved Special Olympics,” said Toomey. “I can have a bad day and walk in to practice and forget all about it. The one-on-one interaction with the athletes is great. Everyone is always smiling and so nice. It really feels like a big family. I always have a smile on my face there.”
Toomey enjoyed the experience so much she continued coaching the same athletes all year long. In the fall, she has served as a soccer individual skills coach and then a basketball skills coach in the winter.
“I think they‘ve opened my heart,” said Toomey. “The athletes are so kind and accepting. I hope that’s rubbed off on me so that I can be non-judgmental and just love life. I try to incorporate their take on life and enjoy every moment and take it at a slower pace. I enjoy teaching the skills athletes because it is less competitive and more about community and building friendships.”
Without a doubt, Toomey has experienced much more in her young life than most her age. But for all her struggles, she wants no credit for surviving; she’d rather the focus be on what she’s been able to do because she survived.
“I recognize the personal growth that’s occurred,” said Toomey. “But I don’t want people to harp on the cancer treatment and how I was able to handle something difficult. Rather, I want people to be proud of what I did after the treatment- post cancer.”
This fall, Toomey heads off to Whitman College in the state of Washington. She is excited to discover what this new chapter in her life will bring. But she won’t forget where she finds inspiration and already plans to get involved with the Best Buddies program and get paired with an adult with intellectual disabilities to build a friendship. She also has plans to drop in at Special Olympics Orange County practices over holiday breaks and return to coach the swimmers next summer. The haze has most certainly lifted and Toomey now looks at life with more clarity, understanding and reverence than ever before!