Northwest NEWS

April 12, 1999

Features

Faith, sense of humor help artist survive

Pam Dungan

Pam Dungan (left) holds the 1998 National Brain Tumor Foundation poster featuring her painting, "Facing the Storm."
Photo courtesy of Pam Dungan.

by Marshall Haley, staff reporter

   In 1983, doctors told Pam Rehwald Dungan that her sudden seizures were caused by a brain tumor, and that she had six months to live. Then they said that even if radiation therapy worked, she would never regain her memory.

   "I didn't have time to listen to that," said Dungan. "My first baby was only a year-and-a-half old. I had a nationwide art company selling my applique and cross-stitch pieces, silkscreens, and note cards. I got down on my knees and said, 'God, it's in your hands.'"

   While recovering from a daily dose of 6,000 rads of radiation, Dungan practiced visualizing the tumor disappearing. "They said the tumor was the size of a golf ball. So I started out holding a golf ball while I would repeat, 'My tumor's gone' for an average of 20-30 minutes every night. Then I went to a ping pong ball, then rocks, then pebbles, then a grain of sand. Finally, the doctors said, 'It's gone.' I was happy to be alive, but I lost all the hair on the left side of my head."

   In 1994, severe seizures signaled the presence of a second tumor. "The first two doctors I saw said, 'It's so malignant, you've no hope,'" said Dungan.

   Then she met Dr. Mitchel Berger, of the University of California, San Francisco Hospital, who was very positive about her survival chances. A nine-hour operation to remove an oligodendroglioma tumor took out over 25 percent of the left side of her brain. People told her she would never again read above the first-grade level.

   Dungan has not only regained most of her memory, she has learned how to walk, talk, read, and write at close to her former level. She's currently writing a book on her experiences.

   "It's a good thing they removed the left side; I was never good at algebra, anyway," joked Dungan. "I'm an artist. I've always been very right-brained. I'm a visual person. But I still have enough left brain to pay my bills and balance my checkbook," she said.

   "I don't give up very easily," says Dungan, in what could easily qualify for any understatement of the year contest. "I believe I survived by my strength of faith and attitude and sense of humor. That strength can come from feeling a direct connection to God, if you're willing to go with it," she said.

   After the surgery, people told her she might never get out of the wheelchair. "My dad spent his last 25 years in a wheelchair. I looked up and said, 'Dad, I love you, but I can't stay in this chair.' One day after getting out of intensive care, I asked for a walker. After two days, I was selling my paintings to members of the hospital staff."

   Two years later, Dungan attended a National Brain Tumor Foundation conference in San Francisco. "After talking with many of the 1,000 conference participants, the Foundation chose my case for the first story to appear on their website, www.braintumor.org. They also chose one of my paintings, 'Facing the Storm,' for their 1998 national poster," Dungan said.

   "My surgeon, Dr. Berger, was very encouraging and supportive. All he charged me for the surgery was drawings of four different brains. Two were before and after pictures of my brain. Then I took pictures of two cadaver brains and made drawings from those."

   These days, Dungan is busy painting and silkscreening many of her acrylic paintings onto T-shirts. "People see many things in the background of my paintings that I didn't know I was putting in them. One lady said she saw the face of a guardian angel," Dungan said. "Someone else pointed out the face of a smiling lion on Haystack Rock, in the painting on the Foundation's poster.

   "I love lions, but didn't intend to paint one there. I believe what comes out on canvas comes from God, to my head, through my heart and my hand."

   When not adding to her prolific portfolio of art, Dungan volunteers at Northwest Hospital's Oligodendroglioma Brain Tumor Patient and Family Support Group, on the fourth Wednesday of every month, from 4:30-6 p.m.

   "I love people and talking to people. I believe God is keeping me here for a purpose," Dungan said.