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Former cancer patient helps oncologist with ALS who once treated her

The Boston Globe, August 26, 2011
Barbara Swansburg was volunteering for a rare Saturday morning shift at the Sawtelle Family Hospice House in Reading when she was asked to feed the new patient in Room 7. "I got up there and gave him his Danish and orange juice, and I came out of the room and said, 'I know this man, where do I know him from?" When she returned to the hospice the next day for her regular Sunday visit, she asked a nurse the patient's name. It was Dr. Richard Heidbreder. Thirteen years ago, Heidbreder, a radiation oncologist at Winchester Hospital, treated Swansburg for breast cancer. She had gone to him after a bad experience with another doctor. "I was still pretty fragile and [Dr. Heidbreder] picked up all the pieces," said Swansburg, 73, of Tewksbury. "He was very compassionate, very caring, and took all the time explaining [the treatment]. It was a very nice visit, and from then on, too." A year later, Swansburg was in remission. She'd see Heidbreder at an annual gathering for cancer survivors, but hadn't attended for a few years. Meanwhile, Heidbreder, 59, of Reading, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in the summer of 2008. Weakness in his arms forced him to retire as medical director of Winchester Hospital's radiation oncology service in November 2009. In June, he moved into the hospice house. As soon as she learned who he was, Swansburg told the hospice's volunteer coordinator she'd like to come in Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings to feed Heidbreder. "I wanted to give back something,'' she said.

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