The heart of healing – Melissa Barr

Melissa Barr loves showing her heart to her family, her friends, her community and her students.

Barr, who teaches first grade at Ashland City Elementary STEM Academy, returned fulltime to the classroom in August, nearly nine months after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her treatment included a procedure called Hyperthermic Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy, making her the first patient at an Ascension Saint Thomas hospital in the state to have it.

The procedure involves heating a standard dose of chemotherapy and applying it directly to the abdomen to increase penetration by the medication into cancerous tissues.

Barr received three rounds of chemotherapy before the procedure last February – three days after Valentine’s Day — and three rounds of chemotherapy after it. She said that her doctors have said she is in remission now.

During her recovery, Barr would make a heart-shaped gesture to show her determination for recovery.

“I would make that heart sign to my husband and my kids to say ‘I love you’ during the process,” Barr said.

Last December, Barr developed severe stomach pain. A CAT scan revealed a diagnosis of Stage 3 ovarian cancer.

Barr, 58, who has been teaching in the Cheatham County school district since 2005 primarily as a kindergarten teacher and was named the East Cheatham Elementary Teacher of the Year in 2018. She returned to her virtual classroom in April for a few weeks. She wore a wig during her teaching time after losing her hair to the chemotherapy.

“It was important to me that they (her students) didn’t know. I never wanted to be sick at all in front of my kids,” said Barr, who grew up in Cheatham County. “I am sure some parents told them how sick I was (a letter about her illness was sent to parents of her students.). But with COVID and quarantines going on, I am sure it (her absence) was not out of the ordinary to the kids.”

Barr gathered her strength (“Benadryl knocks me out, so you can image chemo,”) and returned to the classroom in person on Aug. 6, the first day of school.

“It was a very emotional day for all of my kids and myself,” she said. “They were crying, and I kept asking them ‘I’m here, why are you crying?’ But it was the sweetest reunion I could ever ask for.”

Barr said that her most fearful times during treatment and recovery came when her family was supporting her. She and her husband, Richard, have been married 41 years and a daughter, Emily, who lives in Pleasant View with her two children, Henry, 3, and Brighton, 1.

“It was scary watching me through their eyes, with them wondering ‘is she going to make it?’ ” Barr said. “My husband of 41 years was watching me at my worst.”

The special surgery

“I have always been so healthy, so when I ended up with the cancer, I said there has to be a reason for this,” said Barr, a former karate instructor who has done yoga for many years. “I never second-guessed Dr. (Jason) Barnett’s decision to choose me for the procedure.”

HIPEC (“hot chemotherapy”) is commonly used for cancers of the abdomen and administered to patients who have already received some traditional chemotherapy treatment. Gynecological oncologists Barnett and Dr. Michael Stany used it to treat Barr during surgery at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital Midtown in February.

Barnett said that the innovative procedure involves removing as much cancerous areas (often tumors) as the surgeons can find, close the abdomen, then place the heated chemo on top of the area for about 90 minutes. The entire surgery takes about five or six hours with a surgical team of about seven or eight members, he said.

“Anytime you do something new you are a little nervous,” Barnett said. “But during the surgery and afterward, we were really thrilled with the outcome. There was never a moment I felt unsafe about her.”

He said that Barr’s condition and her optimism made her an excellent candidate for the surgery.

“We had been looking for the right patient for about a year,” he said. “We started preparing her fairly early (after her diagnosis) that it was an option for her. I was looking for someone with the positive outlook that she has. It all came down to timing and patient selection.”

Barnett and Stany have asked Barr to speak to other patients of theirs who are considering the HIPEC surgery, and she readily accepts that role.

“I never, ever want to say that I had a rough day now,” Barr said.