Friday, April 01, 2005
Ellen Moore gave her all to the last
The 39-year-old lawyer and marathon runner died Thursday with her family by her side.
|Slide show: Photos of Ellen on the run|
2003 profile: Read more about her fight for life
Ellen Moore crossed her last finish line Thursday, ending her race against cancer just the way she began it: vigorously and optimistically, never once letting it slow her down.
The 39-year-old lawyer and marathon runner died at Carilion New River Valley Medical Center in Radford with her family by her side.
Refusing to give in to end-stage metastatic melanoma, Moore defied her doctors' prognosis and accomplished a lifetime's worth of goals in the past three years - when she was supposed to be dying.
Through it all, she rejected all pleas to slow down, because, as she put it, "I'm not dead yet."
"We're the ones who are blessed, you know," said her mother, Mary Ann Moore. "Even with her pain, she just smiles at you and makes jokes and never once complains - we're just very fortunate to have known her."
The day before she died, Ellen promised to teach her sister horseback riding in the summer. "And truly, she meant it," Susan Moore said.
The subject of a June 2003 Roanoke Times profile, Moore astonished everyone who knew her. In 2002, when doctors gave her three to six months to live, this was her response:
She bought a 116-acre farm near Christiansburg with her boyfriend, populating it with chickens and goats. She planted fruit trees that weren't due to bloom - for seven more years.
She approached the death sentence like her toughest legal cases, tracking down cancer researchers across the country, participating in clinical trials across the East Coast.
She wasn't going to let the treatments - among the most severe forms of radiation and chemotherapy available - prevent her from running or working or having fun. In early 2003 she stunned her running buddies by signing up for her first marathon, California's Big Sur International.
She once ran 18 miles in her T-shirt and shorts - in the freezing rain. When her knee hurt or her liver was on fire, she dismissed the pain as "just a stitch in my side."
She rarely missed a day of work. If she became sick at her law office, she simply closed her office door until it passed.
On weekends she helped build and renovate houses for poor people, insisting always that she was the one who was blessed.
"Except for the fact that they say I'm dying, I have everything I need or want in this world," Ellen said.
At Big Sur, she ran with her cousin, finishing the 26.2-mile race with energy to spare. Two miles from the finish line, she looked back on how far she'd come and said to her cousin: "Not bad for a dead girl."
But if Ellen's performance at Big Sur amazed and inspired, it was nothing compared with her next 23 months.
Ellen soon became a wife, marrying her longtime boyfriend, Billy Balarzs, in a ceremony that had literally everyone - except Ellen - in tears.
Before long she was entering another race, a half-marathon in Phoenix, and fighting to be accepted into a new experimental trial. This time doctors thought it was good news that the treatments made her sick: Perhaps now the pain meant the drugs were actually working. When an early scan showed that some of the tumors' growth had stalled, Ellen was ecstatic.
Though she remained ill, Ellen continued running and working - driving to Richmond for a mock trial, writing legal articles, helping Billy raise new animals on the farm. When her mother suggested she slow down, Ellen looked at her and said, "How can I test my limits if I do that?"
Ellen and her sister volunteered with Rebuilding Together, a home-revitalization nonprofit dedicated to the working poor. Once when her mom arrived to pick them up at a work site, Ellen climbed into the car with a layer of Sheetrock dust covering her.
"Very calmly, I asked her, 'Why were you the one hanging Sheetrock?' and she said, 'Because I was the tallest one there,'" Mary Ann Moore recalled.
By last Thanksgiving, the treatment was proving deadlier than the cancer. Ellen's liver started to hemorrhage and swell. Though she still worked when she could, she was hospitalized regularly, her husband and family constantly by her side.
In January, just when she was starting to feel left behind, her Woods Rogers law firm offered her a nonequity partnership.
"It was something she'd been working toward for years," said her running buddy and former co-worker, Mike Urbanski, now a federal magistrate. "It gave her such a renewed boost and a sense of confidence."
Though her condition never improved, "She was not about to tell you that she wasn't doing well," he added. "It was always, 'I'm doing great. How's your family? How are you?'"
Even last week, between waves of nausea and excruciating pain, Moore was in bed grading bar exams - "one of the most thankless jobs there is," Urbanski said. "That's just typical of Ellen to think, 'This is something I can do here at home, for somebody else.'"
Urbanski last visited Ellen on Easter Sunday, taking her flowers from the altar of his church. "I think she was strapping on her running shoes then," he said.
"She's free of this disease now, and in this time of rebirth and renewal, she's able to move on and that's how I'm going to think about her: still out there running, still trying to beat me."
As Ellen herself put it, in a favorite quotation that she e-mailed to friends last fall: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO!!! What a ride!'"
Ellen Moore's funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Blacksburg.