NEW BEDFORD — Jennifer White Smith was undergoing treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, when she decided to apply for a National Park Service promotion.
“Timing is everything,” she said. If the job posting had gone live in November, Smith said she wasn’t sure she would’ve applied because she wasn’t feeling that well.
But when the opening came up, she was feeling better and decided to give it a shot. She found out March 4 that she got the position of deputy superintendent, after a national search, overseeing New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park and Roger Williams National Memorial.
That same day, the superintendent announced she was leaving, and Smith was named acting superintendent until the position is filled.
It's the latest chapter in Smith's unexpected saga and the battle to regain her health. She has waged her fight publicly, sharing her journey on Facebook with friends, family and acquaintances ever since her diagnosis Aug. 24.
She returned to work Feb. 20, at that point, as management assistant for the National Park Service. Barely two weeks later, she got the promotion.
“It’s just great to be back,” said Smith, 52, as the Park Service prepares for its busiest time of the year. “I feel good.”
Her last chemo treatment was on New Year's Eve day.
In January, “I knew that’s when I was starting to feel better because I was getting bored sitting at home,” she said. “I needed to get back into whatever this new life is going to be because I didn’t want to be in my own head all the time.”
At an early February appointment with her oncology team, she learned she was in remission.
Although it was nervewracking and there were a lot of emotions, the thought process was, “She's going to get through it, regardless,” said Elizabeth Gonsalves, Smith’s 26-year-old daughter. “We didn’t have a choice; we kept going forward.”
Smith’s other kids are Matthew White and Emily Gonsalves. Her husband is Christian Smith and she has four dogs.
Liz helped organize a fundraiser in November in her mom’s honor to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center. The community helped raise almost $4,500 which was split between the two organizations.
“She remained strong the whole time,” Liz recalled, although she got lonely at times and made requests for the New Bedford food that she loves. It was a family effort to make sure “she got all her favorites,” she said.
Smith recognizes that "I’m not out of the woods yet.” She still has to go to Rhode Island for monthly blood work and see an oncologist every six weeks for a checkup, which is expected to continue until the end of the year. Then, it’s about determining next steps.
“I’ve got about a 75 percent chance of staying in remission on my own,” she said. Two doctors recommended against a bone marrow transplant at this point.
Right now, one of her biggest challenges is awaiting results of blood tests. “It’s more of an emotional thing,” she said.
But staying busy helps.
“I pretty much wake up every day committed to living,” Smith said, trying not to think about the “what-ifs.”
In addition to being back to work, Smith is paying it forward to those still fighting.
Asked if it takes a toll on her, Smith said no.
“Truly, as corny as it sounds, truly, it’s like a responsibility because I got so much from people. I got so much support from people; strangers who reached out and sent me things, and called and emailed,” she said.
Recalling people she saw while she was in treatment who got their hair back and moved on from their diagnosis, she said “Those are my heroes and those are my inspiration.”
“If I can do that for somebody, that’s what I want to do.”
She has texting conversations with a young woman in her early 20s going through treatment at Rhode Island Hospital, she said.
She’s also talking to a family friend in California who’s in her late 50s and was just diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“We don’t really even know each other, but unfortunately have this in common,” she said.
“There’s always going to be people who are going to get this news.”
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