Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

After dual losses, Tampa couple celebrates holidays with gift of humor

TAMPA — Holiday gift giving can be a challenge for any couple.

Recently engaged, Megan Duffey and Daniel McConnell of Tampa decided to play on that theme for their Christmas cards — but with a twist all their own.

The nearly 100 cards that went out to family and friends and then made waves on Facebook show Duffey giving her fiance a pair of gloves and McConnell giving Duffey a red bra.

To understand the humor here, and the resilience of this young couple, it's important to know two things:

McConnell, a retired Army captain, lost his right arm below the elbow in 2006 when his helicopter went down in Afghanistan. Duffey, a nursing student who often instructed women on how to conduct breast self-exams, discovered a lump in her right breast in August and underwent a modified radical bilateral mastectomy in October.

A woman giving winter gloves to her one-armed Army veteran fiance and a man giving his soon-to-be-wife a new bra for Christmas just weeks after her double mastectomy.

Sometimes, in the face of life's cruelest challenges, the best thing to do is laugh.

• • •

The idea was born from a desire to connect, break down barriers and open conversations.

In the seven years since McConnell, 36, returned from Afghanistan, he has experienced the full range of reactions, from strangers asking the most personal of questions to acquaintances trying their hardest to avoid referencing the hook attached to the man they're talking with.

"I realized early on that humor is the best way to cope with things," said McConnell, who has since gone on to become a doctor. "Almost nobody has bad intentions when they come up to you. Everybody's just trying to be helpful, no matter how obnoxious they are."

Amputations and cancer are uncomfortable topics. People are torn between wanting to be honest and acknowledge the struggle but not wanting to offend or pry. The couple learned quickly just how many questions people have, and just how nervous they are to ask them.

"How does his arm work?"

"How did it happen?"

"How come he doesn't wear a hand?"

"Do you have boobs?

"Can I see them?"

"What happens after you chop them off?"

"We wanted to do something funny that would set the tone for our friends to ask questions," Duffey said. "If we can laugh at it, then (friends and family) can laugh at it and feel comfortable to come to us with questions."

Conversation flows easiest when Duffey, 30, swaps treatment stories with cancer patients or when McConnell meets people with hooks or prosthetics.

"It can be uncomfortable but they're like, 'You have cancer, so you understand,' " Duffey said. "It breaks down that barrier."

But for people who haven't faced those challenges, asking questions can be more difficult. So the couple uses humor to ease the tension.

For instance, last Gasparilla Duffey bought McConnell a shirt featuring a pirate with a hook. The tagline: "Want to hook up?"

"He still wears it," she said. "It's a good segue and people always ask about it."

• • •

Perhaps more inspirational than the humor this couple displays is their determination to move forward and help others.

McConnell is a second-year resident in emergency medicine at Tampa General Hospital. Duffey plans to continue her work in women's health once her chemotherapy is finished. Both will likely cross paths with patients facing the same hurdles they have overcome.

Doctors will call McConnell in to talk with recent amputees.

"I'll explain to them, 'Don't dwell on the what if,' " he said. "I've watched people waste their entire life going back and trying to relieve that moment of whatever happened and wishing what things would be like if it hadn't. No. Forward. Always go forward."

Friends often ask Duffey if she is going to switch to oncology, but she remains focused on women's health issues.

"This creates a really great teachable moment for me going forward to connect with my patients," she said. "I can understand what they're going through, and I can understand how they're going to feel emotionally and physically. I can't really even say I'm mad about it. You cannot buy education like this."

Though her outlook is positive and determined, sometimes, the aggressive chemotherapy wears her down and the pain from her rehab exercises gets to be too much. In those moments, Duffey turns to McConnell for motivation. He makes it sound easy, pushing forward each day, but she knows it's not.

Amidst all the pain and challenges and fear, the two connect. In spite of everything else, they have each other.

The night before her mastectomy, as Duffey lay crying in bed, McConnell soothed her fears.

"Now we're both going to be missing body parts," McConnell told her, turning her tears to laughter.

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

After dual losses, Tampa couple celebrates holidays with gift of humor 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 9:14pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Trump sprinkles political attacks into Scout Jamboree speech

    GLEN JEAN, W.Va. — Ahead of President Donald Trump's appearance Monday at the National Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, the troops were offered some advice on the gathering's official blog: Fully hydrate. Be "courteous" and "kind." And avoid the kind of divisive chants heard during the 2016 campaign such as "build …

    President Donald Trump addresses the Boy Scouts of America's 2017 National Scout Jamboree at the Summit Bechtel National Scout Reserve in Glen Jean, W.Va., July 24, 2017. [New York Times]
  2. Trump, seething about attorney general, speculates about firing Sessions, sources say

    WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has spoken with advisers about firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as he continues to rage against Sessions' decision to recuse himself from all matters related to the Russia investigation.

  3. John McCain to return to Senate for health care vote

    WASHINGTON — The Senate plans to vote Tuesday to try to advance a sweeping rewrite of the nation's health-care laws with the last-minute arrival of Sen. John McCain — but tough talk from President Donald Trump won no new public support from skeptical GOP senators for the flagging effort that all but …

  4. Last orca calf born in captivity at a SeaWorld park dies

    Tourism

    ORLANDO — The last killer whale born in captivity under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program died Monday at the company's San Antonio, Texas, park, SeaWorld said.

    Thet orca Takara helps guide her newborn, Kyara, to the water's surface at SeaWorld San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas, in April. Kyara was the final killer whale born under SeaWorld's former orca-breeding program. The Orlando-based company says 3-month-old Kyara died Monday. [Chris Gotshall/SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment via AP]
  5. Blake Snell steps up, but Rays lose to Orioles anyway (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Blake Snell stepped up when he had to Monday and delivered an impressive career-high seven-plus innings for the Rays. That it wasn't enough in what ended up a 5-0 loss to the Orioles that was their season-high fifth straight is symptomatic of the mess they are in right now.

    Tim Beckham stands hands on hips after being doubled off first.