"I love sparkle!" says Gloria Repik. "If you know who I am, you know I love sparkle."
Repik is known by her friends and family for her sparkle, but at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, she's known as the volunteer who handcrafts crocheted beanies for cancer patients. She gives every beanie a touch of sparkle and then donates them to women undergoing chemotherapy who lose their hair.
Colorful, warm and fuzzy, the beanies are adorned with sparkly glitter, ribbons, buttons, small jewels and lots of love. They're called Crystal Beanies, named after her daughter-in-law Crystal Ojeda, a non-smoker who passed away after a yearlong battle with lung cancer.
Diagnosed in August 2015, Crystal had PEH (pulmonary epithelioid hemangioendothelioma), a rare form of lung cancer. She was only 34 at the time.
"PEH is a cancer of the blood vessels of the lungs, often seen in young females," says Dr. David Bodkin, a board-certified oncologist affiliated with Sharp Grossmont.
A 2004 article in the journal CHEST noted only 50 reported cases. In 2014, an Oncology Review paper noted up to 248 cases worldwide. "It's still extremely rare," says Dr. Bodkin.
Trini Perez-Ojeda, Repik's daughter, works at Sharp Grossmont as a compliance manager in the engineering department. She was married to Crystal.
"Crystal worked at San Diego County Juvenile Hall as a teacher's assistant. People would say 'Why don't you do something else?' but she loved helping teenagers get their diploma, regardless if it was at juvenile hall. She wanted to help these kids get off the street. She was an inspiration to everyone," says Perez-Ojeda.
Indeed, Crystal's illness inspired her mother-in-law to start making the beanies. "I know these women are in a bad place right now. A women's hair is her crown; if you lose it, I know it takes so much from you. If your head is covered, and you're 'blinged out,' you feel good again — if only just for a moment."
As she peruses the beanie options, cancer patient Patsy Drury says, "There are so many different colors it's hard to pick one," finally picking an elegant winter white cap. "This will keep my head warm," she says.
Repik's mother taught her to crochet when she was only 6 years old. "I think I was supposed to learn so that when this part of my life came, I would be able to do this," she says.
Each beanie is tagged with two small laminated cards. One is a photo of Crystal, the other says Crystal Beanies in her honor.
Repik has six children and four grandchildren, whom she has also taught to give back. And already there are plans to participate in the next American Lung Association walk.
Perez-Ojeda says, "I went to the recent lung cancer walk and it made me more motivated to prepare for next year. We already have more than 200 people that want to walk in honor of Crystal, and that's just family."
"Crystal's case was very rare and even though we couldn't help her, this is our way to give back and help others. It all starts with one person."
For the news media: To talk with Dr. Bodkin about lung cancer treatment for an upcoming story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.