Caring for chickens led this man to realize he could care for fellow veterans too.

Following several violent tours in Iraq, Ray Russell was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

He had applied for services at his local Veterans Affair office, and after the diagnosis, the VA set up Russell with resources designed to help. But he always felt like he was still missing something.

At the time, he didn't think much about treatment other than what the VA offered. Instead, he spent most of his days working overtime in the restaurant industry.


"I had been working myself to not feel," he explains. "I would work 80 hours, 90 hours; there was a time when I worked 110 hours a week."

He and his family, though, had moved onto 30 acres of land in Tennessee, and while he didn't have any experience doing so, he dreamed of farming and raising animals there.

One day, on his way home from an appointment at the VA, Russell decided to buy some chickens at a tractor supply store.  

Russell on his land in Tennessee. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.

Russell didn't know much about caring for chickens then. He didn't even have a coop for them, so he temporarily set them up to live in his basement.

Not long after this positive step forward, however, tragedy struck.

In 2013, Russell's wife, Maria, died by suicide. It was disturbingly similar to another suicide he had witnessed while serving in Iraq, and the experience amplified his PTSD symptoms significantly.

He developed a sense of hyper-vigilance or heightened alertness. He stopped sleeping, lost his restaurant job, and couldn't keep another job which was particularly difficult for him, considering he'd been working since he was 11 years old.

Russell in Iraq. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.

What's more, his two young daughters needed him, so he felt mounting pressure to provide for his family. However, with trauma like this affecting him everyday, it started to feel impossible.

Russell knew he needed help, but he also knew the mental health services available to him through the VA weren't quite enough.

"There were things that the VA was not able to do for me, such as bringing me into a community and giving me a purpose and a focus other than just work," he says.

He knew he wasn't the only one who was struggling in this way. He'd lost several friends who'd served in the military with him to suicide. Like them, he had no idea how to help himself.

That's when Russell turned to his farm.

Without a job to occupy his time, he began clearing the overgrown land and setting it up for crops and animals. He started to teach himself what he needed to know to run a farm by watching YouTube videos.

Part of Russell's land in Tennessee. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.

After a few months, he noticed his farmland wasn't the only thing that was improving — he was starting to feel better, too.

"I was feeling good about myself like I hadn't in years," he says.

The effects were so encouraging that he couldn't keep it to himself. He thought of all the other veterans he knew and came up with a way to try to help them heal through farming, too.

He told his VA social worker and psychiatrist about his idea to invite other veterans to the farm.

Since he wasn't a mental health expert, he wanted to make sure he wouldn't accidentally hurt other people or himself. As it turns out, people at the VA thought it was a wonderful idea and even offered to help Russell create mental health programs on the farm for the veterans.

Soon after, Russell shared his plan on Facebook. He received an overwhelmingly positive response.

"[My post] got so many shares, so many likes. I was getting messages from people all over, saying, 'Hey, man, I need this kind of help,'" he remembers.

Some of the animals on Veterans Hill Farm. Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.

That was the beginning of the Veterans Hill Farm — a place designed to help disabled veterans, primarily those with PTSD.

It's designed to work like this: A veteran can stay on the farm for 28 days. During that time, they complete a program designed by mental health professionals and led by volunteer experts, including agriculturists, woodworkers, and animal experts. Each week, the veterans focus on a different area, such as tilling the land or building structures, to help them develop useful skills. They also work with a local chef to learn how to prepare farm fresh food for healthy meals.

When they're not working and learning on the farm, they have the opportunity to go through counseling and take part in healing practices like yoga and church services.

Image via iStock.

They experience all this with fellow veterans who've had some of the same struggles, which aims to help them rebuild a sense of community.

Veterans Hill Farm isn't officially open so far, in 2018, but it's getting there — thanks to help from supporters both close by and around the country. They're clearing the land, building tiny houses for the veterans to stay in, and donating materials to get the place ready for guests.

Through all this preparation, the farm has already helped 10 veterans. One veteran came by to offer a hand, and Russell and his team helped him find work and housing. They even reunited him with his 7-year-old daughter, who he hadn't seen since she was a baby.

Russell hopes veterans leave his farm with skills they'll need to move forward in their lives when they get back home as well as a strengthened support system.

After all, that's exactly what the farm has given him. He loves working in nature with the 120 or so animals that now live there. He's developed more tools that have helped him continue to heal. He's even found love again. Russell now has four children, and his wife, Veronica, works beside him on the farm.  

Image via Ray Russell, used with permission.

Russell says he also considers every veteran to be family because of their shared experiences and that he always will. To him, it feels like a natural step to give them a temporary home on his farm. He's just grateful for the chance to help them find the hope they're looking for.

"We have to be there for each other," he says. "And that's what I'm trying to do."

via ABC and Bee Gees / YouTube

A year ago a woman in Pearland, Texas helped save her husband's life because of her quick thinking and the sweet, four-on-the-floor disco beat of the Bee Gees.

After finishing a two-mile run with her husband Quan, Ganesa Collins watched him fall to the ground. "We sat on the bench, and he was in front of me," Collins told ABC. "I was standing behind and stretching, and he just went face forward. His head hit the dirt."

She quickly called 911 and the operator said he was having a heart attack.

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via ABC and Bee Gees / YouTube

A year ago a woman in Pearland, Texas helped save her husband's life because of her quick thinking and the sweet, four-on-the-floor disco beat of the Bee Gees.

After finishing a two-mile run with her husband Quan, Ganesa Collins watched him fall to the ground. "We sat on the bench, and he was in front of me," Collins told ABC. "I was standing behind and stretching, and he just went face forward. His head hit the dirt."

She quickly called 911 and the operator said he was having a heart attack.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."