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Taking Care of Our Own

When SKIPPY Foods teammate Greg Ward faced cancer, he knew where he could turn for support: his family of coworkers
By
  • Mary Ladd

May 13, 2021

Category
Story

After six brutal months of chemotherapy treatment in 2018, Greg Ward was down to 120 pounds. Dropping 45 pounds from his normally 165-pound frame meant that he ended up weighing less than one of his pet dogs, a Turner and Hooch–style Dogue de Bordeaux named Madison.

Creature Comforts

During his cancer treatment, Greg found comfort in Madison and his six other dogs. He would rest at home, in what he calls his “cancer chair,” in the shade of a big Bradford pear tree. From that grassy perch in the middle of his yard, he could relax and watch the dogs, including two French bulldogs and a spirited chihuahua, play and run around him, stopping for the occasional cuddle on Greg’s lap—perhaps proving that it’s true what they say: pets give us humans unconditional love just when we need it most.

Greg has lived for twenty-five years in his East End home, just thirty minutes down the road from where he works as a roaster operator at the 166,500-square-foot Skippy Foods plant in Little Rock, Arkansas. Skippy Foods is the third place this Kansas native has worked in his entire life.

The Power Of Family and Community

Greg’s work community already supported him in a big way a few years ago, as he cared for his wife of thirty-three years, Damita, before she passed away from complications of pneumonia, heart failure, and kidney failure.

In 2016, Greg married a radiologic technologist (RT) named Tierra, whom he met at a local grocery store. “I asked her out to dinner, because she was too pretty to be eating a frozen dinner,” he said. Fast forward to now, where Greg considers Tierra’s daughter, Kayla, to be his bonus daughter in addition to his own two, Amanda and Laura.

It was at his family’s urging that Greg got a colonoscopy in May 2018. He had neglected his own health, he says, while caring for Damita for the eight years she was on dialysis before she passed away. Taking care of yourself can be close to impossible in situations like Greg’s: according to caregiver.org, emotional, mental, and physical health problems arise from complex caregiving situations and the strains of caring for frail or disabled relatives.

An Important Update

When Greg got the distressing news that he had stage 3a colon cancer, he realized that colon cancer is not something many adults feel comfortable talking about. After two days of feeling embarrassed about his own medical surprise, though, Greg decided he wanted to share freely with his co-workers. His reason? After twenty-four years of working together, they’re like family. “We’ve watched each other’s kids grow up,” he explains.

So, during a morning-shift meeting, Greg raised his hand, stood up, and said to a room full of co-workers: “Y’all, I have colon cancer.”

Since he made that announcement, one of his co-workers has begun treatment for colon cancer and another for breast cancer. Perhaps they were emboldened by the way human resources manager Heather Schutt and plant manager Roger Vos told Greg that they would do whatever they could to help—and, Greg recalls, “they REALLY meant it.” Roger’s own wife had breast cancer over fifteen years ago, so he understood the stress and worry that illness can bring to one’s family.

Maintaining A Sense Of Purpose

Greg’s co-workers covered his shifts when he had surgery in June 2018. An eight-inch length of his colon was removed by surgeon Lance Burns, who at six foot four is famous for his years playing professional hockey, including a stint with the Oklahoma City Blazers, before turning his attention to medicine.

Greg’s chemo lasted from July to December. His managers left it up to him to decide when he was ready to come back to work. As it turned out, this was sooner than anyone expected. Greg just wanted his routine, and that included his Skippy Foods work friends.

Along those lines, Greg has fond memories of golfing and grabbing beers with friends such as Stan Pozehl, a Skippy Foods mix and mill operator. When Stan learned he had a heart condition, Greg and Tierra offered him advice and support. Later, when Greg was diagnosed, it was Stan who told him, “I guarantee, if you put your feet in the grass, it’ll help you feel better.”

Eager To Help

Spend a few hours with Greg at the Skippy Foods plant, and it becomes clear that his strong work ethic and sense of humor have carried him these tough times. With the enticing salty-sweet smell of roasted peanuts in the air, Greg, wearing his long white uniform jacket, extends his arms and shares exactly how many pounds of peanuts—eighteen thousand—run through the hot-air roaster each hour. You can see his eyes, even behind plastic safety goggles, glisten with pride.

Down the hall, in the same room where Greg shared his initial cancer diagnosis, there is a photo of him receiving a commemorative jersey from a Hormel Foods initiative, Pride of the Jersey, that began in 2017. Nominating him to receive and wear the traveling jersey, his co-worker Mike B. said, “Greg has an extensive knowledge of the roaster operation, an attitude of helping out any way he can, will answer or return calls on his day off in you need help, and he continuously looks at options for improvement.” Indeed, if there’s ever an issue while he’s not on the clock, Greg is eager to help anyway. “That’s just what I do,” he says.

Keep Living

Greg had another colonoscopy in June 2019; one polyp was removed, and he was given an “all clear” from his oncologist, Dr. Kamal Patel—meaning Greg does not need another colonoscopy for three more years. Dr. Patel gives him the same advice at the end of each appointment: “Keep living.”

While some workplaces say they care about their employees, Greg explains, at Skippy Foods there’s “action in the form of real help.” One touching example: when Greg seemed like he had less energy, Heather asked to sit with him in his work space, in the guise of her role as H.R. manager. “I knew what she was doing,” Greg laughs at the memory. While Heather kept asking questions about how to operate the equipment, he understood that she was actually showing her concern for how he was feeling that day. “She just wanted to be sure I was okay.”

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