Christmas Tree Tradition Brings Cheer and Hope to Cancer Patients

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(Left to right) Paul Salvador, Linda Salvador, Kaylee Priest, Ryley Priest

Linda Salvador and her husband, Paul, sat in the waiting room of St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor’s Infusion Center on a Tuesday afternoon. Paul may soon be a regular here, getting treatment for colon cancer. But what many patients don’t know is that he and Linda are already familiar faces in this part of the hospital. They’ve been returning every Christmastime for the past 20 years, to decorate a tree for cancer patients to enjoy.

The tradition started when Linda’s best friend, Diana, was fighting breast cancer at St. Joe’s. She wanted to brighten up the waiting area for people spending the holidays getting treatment.

“She said, ‘You know, I never know if I’m going to be here for Christmas next year. None of us do. I would like to make it beautiful for everybody,'” Linda said. 

That year – ’95 or ’96 Linda recalls – the women got a tree donated from a local nursery and decorated the infusion center waiting area. Diana had a knack for this. She chose a different theme for the tree each year.

“One year the tree was done in all feathers,” Linda chuckled, adding, “That was a one-time thing.”

Over the years Linda recruited the whole family to take part in the annual yuletide tradition, including her kindergarten granddaughter, Kaylee Priest. There were a couple of years when Kaylee’s girl scout troop also decorated a Christmas tree in the cancer center lobby.

Diana died in 2008 after a second bout of cancer. But Linda, Kaylee and the rest of the family have faithfully kept the Christmas tree tradition alive in her memory.

Chris Hardy, Chaplain of the Cancer Center, met Linda for the first time this year. He said her small act of kindness has a big impact.

“I could tell right away this was one special woman,” Hardy said. “I’m sure the loving spirit she and her family bring to this task lingers long after they leave the clinic,” he added.

Linda’s granddaughter, Kaylee, is a senior in high school now, and by this time next year, she may be out of town at college. She returned to St. Joe’s with Linda, Paul and her brother, Ryley, two weeks ago to decorate the tree.

As in past years, Linda got local businesses to support their efforts. The Little Green Apple in Dexter donated the white angel tree topper, while the Dexter Busch’s donated poinsettias to brighten up the waiting area. But the most treasured decoration, Linda says, is a time-worn ornament with a black-and-white photo of Diana that’s placed at the top of the tree each year.
dsc_1566The tree is back – donned in traditional red and green this year – to give hope to cancer patients spending too much of this holiday season fighting to get better. Linda will be one of them, accompanying Paul to colorectal surgery and then possibly treatment. But every time she looks at the Christmas tree she and her family decorated, she’ll remember they’re not alone in this fight – Diana’s love and memory lives on, giving them strength and courage to face the unknown.

“She’s smiling down,” Linda said.

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