The Will to Thrive

This is a very personal post and a heartfelt tribute to Christine Tulloch. Embedded in these words are the very core of why we do what we do at Curatio and the huge contributions one young woman made to transforming not only healthcare, but also the lives of thousands of people, including mine.

I can count the number of interviews at which I have cried. One.

The day I met Christine Tulloch we ended our meeting in tears, hugs and an on the spot job offer. Curatio was just beginning and we were months away from having the first version of the platform ready but I met Christine and knew we just had to work with her. I asked her to join our team that very day and knew I would figure out the role, the project and the funding, someway, somehow.

Christine Tulloch

Christine Tulloch

Christine was a young adult cancer survivor and had navigated the difficult transition from pediatrics to adult care. She knew firsthand the isolation and stigma that can come from proms passed by, high school milestones missed and being wise beyond your years, all before your first kiss. She was the founder of ‘Glamour Night’, a wonderful evening where young women survivors of cancers were pampered and celebrated in grand style. Ball gowns were acquired, hotel ballrooms booked, treats procured and glamour sprinkled everywhere. Her goal was to empower, celebrate and shine a light on young women and to help them see their beauty despite the ravages of cancer. This was not simply a night of frocks and frolic, it was about building community, giving voice and sparking the warrior within. She would refer to the group as ‘warrior princesses’ and was fiercely dedicated to igniting a sense of power, hope and resilience in these incredible young women. She knew the power of shared experience and how a tribe of peers can understand the path traveled like no one else can. Christine had this all figured out, years before the terms patient engagement, empowerment and social support were mainstream concepts in healthcare.

When Christine joined our team it was as if Lady Gaga walked into a library and started singing. Our team at Curatio is intensely dedicated to our mission of No Patient Alone. We work tirelessly and passionately, writing code, developing technology, curating evidence, developing strategy and conducting research. I’m so proud of the team and all we have accomplished on our mission. That said, we are not exactly a team of extroverts! Christine had a bounce to her walk, a shine to her mane of golden hair, and a sense of joy that would regularly get entire meetings in fits of giggles. She quickly made friends with everyone and effortlessly gathered people into a loyal fan base. She baked us cookies and breads, pies and tarts, cupcakes and bars. I think we all gained at least five pounds those first few months. She was the founder of our first seasonal cookie exchange and I would routinely walk into the office to find the entire team doing crazy yoga poses, dancing or performing random pushups, with Christine at the helm. She organized our team Light the Night walk, decorated the office and imbued patient centricity into everything we did.

Christine and I wanted to build a community for young adult survivors of cancer. She took to this task with zest and enthusiasm but also with reverence and deep authenticity. She knew then that surviving cancer was like surviving war and not all of your friends made it out. She knew that young adults had to contemplate and make big decisions well before they were ready. They had to think about how they wanted to preserve the option to have children well before they had ever had sex. How to go on a first date wearing a wig you weren’t sure about. Being lonely and behind in school while their peers moved on with their lives. Worrying about the burden on their families and craving independence while still needing family support. They wondered if they would be able to hold down jobs amidst mental fog and how to plan for the future while awaiting a cancer free green light. They contemplated purpose, place and where to direct their power after they had battled cancer. For many, they were still in the throes of fighting or dueling the monster for a second time. They sought what so many people also want — a sense of belonging. Christine knew all of this and set out to build not only a private community for these individuals, but a movement. A movement that would transform a mindset from powerless to powerful, from lonely to connected, from surviving to thriving.

Christine set out to build a movement that would transform a mindset from powerless to powerful, from lonely to connected, from surviving to thriving.

Christine set out to build a movement that would transform a mindset from powerless to powerful, from lonely to connected, from surviving to thriving.

Will2Thrive was Christine’s brainchild and quickly amassed thousands of followers. We invited several hundred into a closed beta of our first version Curatio platform at the time. The stories of connection, belonging and meaning still overwhelm me as I bring them to mind. One young man had a rare form of cancer and neither he nor his care team had ever seen another case. He found a match in our community with another young man in the Midwest. They were both ecstatic. Another user called the community “a positive tinder for cancer warriors” and so many others expressed joy in having their own ‘place’. While we toiled and tinkered with the platform, Christine led the community with her irreplaceable positivity. She termed all of our users ‘warriors’ and illustrated in her thoughts, words and actions what ‘thriving’ with cancer could look like.

I have so many snapshots in my mental photo box of Christine. I remember us taking a business trip together, her first. We were in Palo Alto at a large conference and hotel rooms were scarce. We were roommates and she brought me samples of Arbonne products, shared her ample hair supplies and freely offered beauty and fashion tips. I remember her literally crashing to bed one night with a smile on her face, her gorgeous hair splayed across the pillows and her clothes on. She knew how to milk every minute of the day out and that day was no exception. On that same business trip, we were on different flights home. Mine taking 2 hours and hers taking 8! I asked her where on earth she was transiting through and she hadn’t realized she was flying south to Vegas first before returning home, north to Vancouver. I got her safely on her flight as she bubbled that she didn’t mind the extra time and looked forward to the adventure. And that describes Christine so completely in my mind. She accepted the detours, delays and obstacles and enjoyed the journey regardless. She didn’t just enjoy the trip — she relished every minute.

Christine fought hard to finish her university studies. After years of treatment, the physical, emotional and financial deficits were challenging to overcome. In true Christine style, she not only climbed over these blockades but also went on to win the 2014 Terry Fox Gold Medal Award from Simon Fraser University. She was asked to give the convocation speech and had the audience of thousands in the palm of her hand. I had the privilege of watching her from the platform while I served as a Governor for SFU, my heart bursting with pride for Christine and her family. You can read a bit more about the award and her tremendous university experiences here.

Our work with Christine eventually came to an end. Leading the community on our platform made her regularly revisit her own cancer journey. Our team rallied around her but she began to need to identify herself outside of, beyond, in addition to her cancer diagnoses. I understood her need to do that. We kept in touch sporadically and I plead guilty for liking, loving and up voting the heck out of everything she posted on social media. Like so many others, I was her ardent fan, wanting her to succeed, to flourish, to thrive.

I was devastated to hear that Christine’s cancer had returned for the third time. Quite frankly, I was furious. The world needed all the Christine it could get and there was no logical, rational or just explanation as to why she had to fight this battle again. There was so much more she had to do, so much more she wanted to fight for, so much more goodness and light she needed to spread.

Christine with her Curatio family

Christine with her Curatio family

We were in touch more often these past few months. She was excited about the foundation she was creating, She Defines Strength, and I was sending her all the daily affirmations, love and positive energy I could muster. In our work with Curatio, we face each day thinking of how to improve the lives of patients. How to create connection, support and belonging in a way that is empowering, private and personalized. How to curate evidence based content and programs that help people improve their self-management and adherence with a support team beside them. And right in front of me Christine was doing it, as only she could do — eloquently, positively and empowered.

I think one of the most defining moments of seeing an empowered Christine in action was just a few weeks ago. Christine was always grateful for her care team and the first to give thanks and compliments. But on this one visit, she showed us all what it means to write your own last chapter. To advocate for what you need. To own your health journey and embrace the tough decisions. Before launching into a quality of life lecture, she held up her hand to her care team and said, “You know I would really appreciate it if you could talk to me as someone who is still fighting for their life, someone who hasn’t thrown in the towel.”

From what I understand, everyone heard what she said and the tone of the conversation changed immediately. To me, there is no better example of an empowered patient than that. One who is asking to partner in the fight, to hold hope and faith nearby, and to see the person as a whole, not just the composite pieces of a destructive disease.

Christine’s family was her bedrock. She regaled us with stories of Christmas decorating galore every year starting November 12th! She spoke of their tight knit family home, the way they supported each other, their shared faith and propensity for celebrations. Her brother helped her develop a set of videos and photo essays for Will2Thrive. Her sisters designed workouts and fundraisers. Her parents worked tirelessly to keep the family intact, emotionally, spiritually and financially. While we all grieve the friend, leader, role model and mentor we had in Christine, it is her family that my heart goes out to today. I hope they don’t mind me sharing this tribute and memories of a remarkable young woman. A woman who taught me so much, whose light and love is woven throughout Curatio, and who will be remembered always.

Today is Christine’s celebration of life. Here’s to finding the will to thrive, Christine. To you I am forever grateful.

The toll any disease takes on a family is immense. A GoFundMe campaign has been set up for Christine’s family. You can support them or Christine’s She Defines Strength Foundation here.

Stephanie Oey