CARROLLWOOD — That Alexis Saunders accomplished so much is admirable. She wrote three published volumes of poetry, earned a master's degree and carried on successful simultaneous careers as a social worker and a researcher.
That she accomplished all that in such a short life is remarkable. That she did it almost entirely in her last few years after she was diagnosed with an especially aggressive form of brain cancer and was undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation almost defies belief.
Ms. Saunders passed away March 7. She was 34 years old and had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma in 2005.
"You know, when someone passes away, they suddenly become an exceptional person, the kind of person everyone loved and who touches other people's lives," said her father, Alan Saunders. "But in her case, it was true."
She grew up in Carrollwood Village and attended Berkeley Preparatory School from kindergarten through 12th grade.
She graduated from Vanderbilt University and immediately moved to New York, hoping to build a career in publishing. The low pay for entry-level jobs soon dissuaded her. Instead, she took a job as a researcher for Condé Nast. After six years, she left New York and came back to Tampa. She enrolled at the University of South Florida in 2003 to study social work. Maybe the money wouldn't be much better than in publishing, but it was the kind of work for which she seemed destined.
"She was always the kind of person who wanted to help other people," her father said. "A friend of ours used to call her Mother Teresa, and that was when she was a little kid."
One morning in 2005, she woke up complaining of a severe headache. Within a few hours, doctors discovered a tumor in her brain.
"They told her she would live seven months, a year and a half tops," said her mother, Stephanie Saunders.
Ms. Saunders initially dropped out of school and visited major cancer facilities around the country looking for the best way to treat her cancer. She finally decided to come home and undergo treatments in Tampa.
Doctors treated her with surgery, chemo and radiation. Meanwhile, Ms. Saunders returned to USF, eventually earning a master's degree in social work. She worked for Lifepath Hospice.
"She worked in the most deteriorated neighborhoods, with the poorest, incredibly ill people," her father said.
She also continued to work for Condé Nast and for Newsweek, doing research from the bungalow she had purchased in Tampa Heights. She lived there until infirmities brought on by her cancer and its treatments made it impractical for her to live alone. She moved back into her parents' home.
Meanwhile, she had started writing poetry.
In the next couple of years, three volumes of her work were published. A Place Never Imagined and The Girl in the Mirror were published by Negative Capability Press. Somehow, her poems about life, death and cancer came to the attention of Merck Pharmaceuticals, which published the third book, When You Could Run.
In one poem, Waiting, Ms. Saunders wrote, "The girl she used to be is gone, left without leaving a prescription for refills."
"The end was near, she knew it and couldn't deny it," her father said.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]