Tar Heel of the Week

Relieving the burden of cancer, one family at a time

CorrespondentMay 25, 2013 

TARHEEL-NE-052413-JEL

Tracy Davidian, a Raleigh dentist, set up the Helene Foundation, which has focused on helping families maintain a sense of normalcy while the mothers undergo treatment.

JLEONARD@NEWSOBSERVER.COM — JULI LEONARD

  • Tracy L. Davidian

    Born: May 10, 1974, in Greenville

    Residence: Brier Creek

    Career: Dentist/owner, Sedation Dental Care; co-founder and board president, The Helene Foundation

    Education: B.S., biology, East Carolina University; D.D.S., UNC-Chapel Hill

    Family: Husband, Daniel; sons Chaz, 8, and Grey, 7

    Fun fact: Davidian and her husband had their first date, got engaged and were married all on the same date: Dec. 29. She jokes that this was his way of making it easier to remember the date of each event. In December, they went to Paris for their 10th anniversary and renewed their vows at the top of the Eiffel Tower.

— When Tracy Davidian’s mother-in-law fought cancer, she had grown children to help her and the means to hire a private nurse.

But when Helene Davidian died five years ago this month, Tracy Davidian decided to honor her memory by helping families more like her own –with young mothers who perform the daily juggling act between children, jobs, school, sports and more.

Davidian, a Raleigh dentist, founded the Helene Foundation, which for four years has focused on helping families keep a semblance of normality while their anchors – the mothers – are suddenly absent or too ill to continue their normal activities.

Davidian says the debilitating effect of cancer treatments spawned the idea of supporting mothers.

“We just saw what a toll it took on our family where the children are grown and can help, and it made us aware of, ‘Wow, what happens to the mother who does not have that support?’ ” she says. “They don’t often ask for help, but they are the glue that keeps a family together.”

The group brings families food and cleans their houses. It provides child care and rides for children to attend piano lessons and soccer practice. And as outpatient treatments have become more common, it even buys gas for the mothers to make it to their treatments.

This help allows the women to focus on taking care of themselves while they undergo the grueling cancer treatments.

Katherine Kingsbury, a case worker at UNC Hospitals who has referred patients to the Helene Foundation, says it is unique in its tailored approach to helping families.

“It gives these women the peace of mind that allows them to focus on their own health, knowing their children will be taken care of until they’re well again,” Kingsbury says.

Family ties at ECU

Davidian, 39, grew up in Greenville and nearby Ayden, born into a family with deep ties to East Carolina University.

Both of her parents earned degrees there, and her father was the university’s baseball coach in the 1970s. Her grandfather started the university’s sociology program, and her grandmother was also an alumna.

So it was not surprising that she chose to be a Pirate, but her family was surprised by her plan to be a doctor. Davidian says they worried about her balancing such a demanding career with family.

She eventually chose dentistry, in part because of its creative aspects. An avid artist as a youth, she says she relishes the cosmetic part of dentistry, such as working with veneers to improve the look of teeth.

“It is science and working with people and art all in one,” she says.

She met her husband at ECU, and they both attended dental school at UNC-Chapel Hill. They started their Raleigh practice together, though Davidian jokes that they hardly ever see one another there.

Over time, their specialties have diverged; he focuses on extractions and implants, while she focuses on cosmetic dentistry and, more recently, pain-management techniques.

Their charity efforts have also diverged. While Daniel has gone on mission trips to African and Thailand, helping build wells in rural villages with his church, Tracy has focused her efforts on the Helene Foundation.

She ran the organization herself, on top of her job and home duties, until last year, when the group hired a director to run its day-to-day business.

Helping children cope

The idea for the foundation evolved from what Davidian says was a calling to do something for people stricken by cancer.

Friends who worked in health care urged her to choose a targeted goal rather than a broad one, in order to maximize the impact of her efforts.

She gathered a board of directors and started studying whom to help and how. One night, she asked her husband what comes to mind when he thinks of his mom.

“He said he couldn’t have gotten through school without her,” Davidian says. “He grew up with a learning disability, and if she hadn’t been there to help him with his homework, he didn’t know what would have happened.”

With an eye toward the everyday roles that mothers play, they decided to focus on supporting families whose mothers were undergoing treatment, helping to fill the gaps in children’s lives by their mothers’ illness – whether they are exhausted from chemotherapy or gone from the home.

“When you’re getting bone marrow transplants, you have to isolate yourself and be away from your family for weeks at a time,” she says. “We try to keep some normality in their lives even though their moms have been taken away from them.”

Meals and housecleaning

The foundation receives referrals from social workers at area hospitals, and so far it has been able to help everyone who meets its criteria.

Once a family has been accepted, the Helene Foundation adopts it for six months. Every family gets daily meals and twice-monthly housecleaning. Most get some form of child care. Everything else depends on the needs of the family.

Each family has a liaison who checks in regularly to see what kinds of problems may have arisen, whether it’s a child who needs basketball shoes or a household at risk of having their electricity shut off.

The foundation is currently helping 12 families and has helped about 50 families in all, with just about 15 volunteers and funding from annual galas, local businesses and Hope Community Church, which the Davidians attend.

They had their first gala within a year of Helene’s death; the fourth gala was earlier this month. Each has raised about $60,000, which goes directly to its programs.

The director, Susan Bowers, is paid through the inheritance they received when Daniel’s father died two years ago. They are seeking a sponsorship to continue funding her position.

Families in hard times

In the early days, Davidian was dealing directly with the families in addition to running the financial and administrative side of the nonprofit. But she soon recruited a separate volunteer to work with families.

“I needed to be pulled away from the families, because you start talking and thinking more with your heart than with your head,” she says.

She says many, but not all, of the women they help are single mothers. And most are middle-class families that are not eligible for government assistance, but whose finances have been pummeled by medical bills and the lack of the mother’s salary.

“You suddenly become needy and under financial stress,” she says. “These are just hard-working families that have come under hard times.”

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