Savoring every minute

Published February 14, 2007

PINELLAS PARK -- It took Sue Rea a few minutes Monday morning to remember that she was no longer a school principal.

After three decades in the Pinellas County school system, nearly 20 of them at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center, it was hard to believe her career had come to an end.

Leaving had not been an easy decision. But Rea, 57, has leiomyosarcoma, a rare cancer that affects smooth muscles throughout the body. She has already outlived her doctor's prognosis.

"I had to ask myself, 'What am I out to prove?' " Rea said. "I've worked my whole life. I've done what I wanted to do here."

She retired Friday, she says, because there are a few other things she wants to do while there's still time.

* * *

Rea's last day at the Pinellas Park school, one of two in the county that serves mentally and physically disabled students ages 3 to 22, was a roller coaster ride of emotions.

A girl in a wheelchair, assisted by a school aide, stopped by the office to drop off a card and a book of inspirational poems. A bus driver breezed in with a potted plant and a hug. A mom delivered 60 long-stemmed roses wrapped in yellow tissue paper, one dozen for each year her profoundly disabled son has been there.

Midmorning, Rea visited the high school wing to start saying goodbye to the students. Louis McClanahan, 21, gave her a hug and said he would miss "the best lady around here."

Curtis Smith, 21, who has been at the school half his life, thanked Rea for always listening when he needed to talk. Emily McGeorge, 18, told Rea she loves her.

And Simon Hinds, 22, handed Rea a homemade card with a sun drawn in crayon on the front. Inside, he had written: "I will miss you, Miss Sue Rea. I hope you will come back and visit. Thank you for being a good principal."

Rea doubts that any of the students know why she is leaving. Even though death is a frequent reality at Nina Harris - several students die each year - it's unlikely that those who remain understand the concept of sickness and death, she said.

Most of their parents didn't know she was leaving until last week, when she sent a letter home with the children.

"They're busy with their own lives," she said.

* * *

Severe stomach pain sent Rea to the hospital in December 2005, a week before winter break. She was rushed into surgery, where doctors discovered dozens of tumors in her abdomen.

Their first thought, Rea said, was to sew her back up and turn her over to hospice. But after considering her age and overall good health, they reconsidered. They removed 6 feet of her intestines and as many of the tumors as they could.

When she came out of the anesthesia, her mother was waiting. She told Rea she had cancer.

Doctors later explained that her form of cancer does not respond to chemotherapy, and that the amount of radiation it would take to eradicate the remaining tumors would kill her. They were not optimistic about her chances of survival.

More than a year later, Rea remains symptom-free. The tumors have not returned. She has remained upbeat and grateful for the support of her co-workers.

"They've done nice things for me here," she said. "They've planted a tree, and they renamed one of the fields after me."

Rea and assistant principal Arlene Sullivan wear purple bracelets similar to the yellow bracelet Lance Armstrong popularized during his battle with cancer. Many of the staff members wear them, too, said Sullivan, who considers Rea more a friend than a boss.

Sullivan will become acting principal in Rea's absence. She'll be the one to deliver the graduation address to 22 seniors in May.

But Rea plans to be there, too. She wants to help dress the students in their royal blue caps and gowns, to pin on their corsages, and to tell them how proud they make her.

She also wants to be there to support the teachers.

"I see them struggle," she said. "Every time a child has another seizure, there's more brain damage. It's just not humanly possible for some of these kids to demonstrate progress."

* * *

By the time Rea arrived at her surprise going-away party in the school gym Friday, her office walls were bare and her desk drawers empty.

But a sign outside her door remained: "STOP! No negative comments beyond this point!"

She thinks the positive energy of the people around her has kept her going. That, and the things she still wants to accomplish.

Like doing volunteer work. Maybe for the school system, maybe even at Nina Harris. And traveling. She'd like to visit the Greek islands, maybe take a cruise to Alaska.

But first on her list is a visit to her daughter, who lives in Atlanta. She and her husband are awaiting the birth of a baby, Rea's first grandchild.

It's a girl.

"She's due June 21," Rea said. "But I hope she'll be a couple of days late."

She's hoping for June 23, her 58th birthday.