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.
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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."
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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 [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.