“Be grateful. Always.”
Those words have been a familiar echo on the Facebook page of Danielle Harrison-Meraz in the weeks since she was diagnosed with cancer.
The Southold resident’s health took a turn for the worst when she woke up one morning last month unable to move several fingers on her right hand.
At first she thought she might have a pinched nerve — a minor, pain-free inconvenience that temporarily prevented her from doing simple things, like applying makeup. But after the problem didn’t resolve itself within a few days, she paid a visit to Eastern Long Island Hospital’s emergency room for a CT scan and MRI.
When Ms. Harrison-Meraz was asked to return to the ER and was then taken by ambulance to Stony Brook University Hospital, she knew something more serious was happening. The diagnosis: cancer of the brain, lungs and spleen.
While many might find that a difficult prognosis, Ms. Harrison-Meraz is focused instead on the support she has received from the friends and neighbors who have rallied behind her.
“Before I got off the gurney, people were praying for me,” she said, adding that a friend she ran into at ELIH added her name to the prayer chain at First Baptist Church of Greenport before she even left the hospital.
Want to help?
A bank account has been created to help Ms. Harrison-Meraz pay for medical costs. Checks can be made payable to “Friends of Danielle Harrison-Meraz” and mailed to Bridgehampton National Bank, P.O. Box 1567, Southold, NY 11971.
The community support didn’t stop there. More than 500 bright pink bracelets, inscribed with #TeamDanielle, have been distributed by Ms. Harrison-Meraz’s friend Danielle Volinski. Bracelets cost $2 and can be purchased at the Cross Sound Ferry in Orient, Skippers Restaurant in Greenport, Making Waves Hair Studio in Cutchogue, and Roy H. Reeve Insurance Agency and Wendy’s Deli, both in Mattituck.
A fundraiser has also been planned for Sunday, Feb. 21, from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Greenport Firehouse on Third Street. Two of Ms. Harrison-Meraz’s favorite bands and a DJ are slated to perform with a suggested donation of $25 to help with growing medical costs. A GoFundMe page has also been created and, as of Tuesday morning, $1,125 had been raised toward a $10,000 goal.
Although she’s never smoked, Ms. Harrison-Meraz said she was exposed to secondhand smoke for years as a bartender and waitress, working second and third jobs as she raised her children. Employed for years at Roy Reeve Insurance and most recently the Cross Sound Ferry, she can no longer work or drive since doctors are fearful the lesions on her brain might cause seizures. She currently has no health insurance.
During a recent interview, Ms. Harrison-Meraz was still cheerful and upbeat, laughing and smiling as she described her love of country music and a trip she’d won to Nashville to see a star-studded concert with a powerhouse lineup.
Talking about her time at Stony Brook, she referred to her hospital room as a “hotel room” that was filled with friends and loved ones. When she woke up, she even found a beloved country music star and friend, Lisa Matassa, at her beside.
“She came and her mom and dad were there. That blew my mind,” Ms. Harrison-Meraz said of the Long Island native. “So many friends were there. Family. I have good people. I love my people.”
When family members call her, crying, she tells them to dry their eyes.
“I don’t need tears,” she said. “There’s no point to that. I need love and laughter. I’m still here … Whether I live six months or six years, I want to live life, as best I can.”
Instead, Ms. Harrson-Meraz is focused on family, including her three children and six grandchildren, as well as her fiancé, Melvin Hubbard’s, four children, 15 grandchildren and great-grandchild.
Mr. Hubbard said he’s proud of how Ms. Harrison-Meraz has responded to her diagnosis.
“It’s overwhelming, but with her spirit, we’ll get through it,” he said. “We’re going to beat this.”
Ms. Harrison-Meraz said her strong faith and positive outlook comes from her Southern Baptist upbringing and the values instilled by her father, Jack Harrison, a Greenport butcher who worked at the IGA and later the Arcade, and her mother, Doris Biggs Harrison, who still devotes her time to helping the less fortunate, making clothes for Barbie dolls and distributing them every Christmas. Ms. Harrison-Meraz lived in Greenport for many years before moving to Southold.
Even in the midst of the recent dramatic turn of events, friends say she is an inspiration.
“She’s a pretty amazing lady,” said Kristin Tirelli. “She’s such a giving person; the most selfless person I’ve ever met in my life. She thinks about others before herself. Even in the hospital, when she just got the news about the cancer, we’re sitting around talking about fundraising and she immediately turns the conversation to others, saying there are others out there in need. I said, ‘Danielle, this is not about other people. This is about you.’ ”
While her cancer is inoperable, Ms. Harrison-Meraz feels good about the level of care she is receiving at Stony Brook. Currently, she is undergoing radiation and will also receive chemotherapy.
To help make the treatments go more smoothly, she sits back and listens to an iPod her friends loaded with her favorite country songs. It’s just one more small way the community has helped support her.
“It caught me completely off guard,” she said of everyone’s help. “It’s overwhelming. But this is the North Fork. It’s what people do.”
Caption: Danielle Harrison-Meraz at 67 Steps beach in Greenport. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)