Who Are We Wednesdays - Michael Ziemian
NAZARETH --- Michael Ziemian admits he was first attracted to Melissa Harwood because of her beauty.
"She was really beautiful," says Ziemian.
However, he says the two quickly developed a deeper connection through a shared passion of physical and mental fitness. In other words, the two loved and desired to stay in shape together.
Ziemian first met Harwood in 2000 when the two worked together in New Jersey. After months of working up enough courage to ask her out, Michael says the two never looked back.
"We really connected," Ziemian says. "We were both quiet but we didn't have to talk a lot to understand each other."
Michael explains how the couple had common musical interests and enjoyed running together in a park across from their workplace. It was in that park where Ziemian proposed to Harwood in September 2001.
"We walked up to a bench where we could sit. I asked her to marry me and we got engaged," Ziemian said with a smile on his face.
The two married the following year and did some moving around. First to New Hampshire to teach in a public school. Then to Florida where Michael started a landscaping company and Melissa got a degree in occupational therapy. In 2010, the Ziemian's had their first daughter, Lily. Three years later, Melissa gave birth to their second daughter, Layla. The two were seemingly living a fairy tale until Melissa noticed Layla having issues with breastfeeding.
"She (Melissa) could feel like a lump in her (left) breast and Layla wouldn't take to it anymore," he says.
Michael says doctors originally thought it was a blockage in her milk duct but after a year and a half of testing she was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.
"It was a little shocking. I didn't know anything about cancer," he says. "For me to understand the gravity of the situation, I had to do some research."
In April 2015, Michael learned Melissa's cancer was not just in her breast. It had also spread to her lymph nodes.
"The first couple nights were sleepless. I was trying to comfort her but at the same time I thought this is so scary," says Ziemian.
Melissa went through more than a dozen rounds of chemotherapy followed by a mastectomy and eight weeks of radiation. By the end of January 2016, Michael says "there was no evidence of the disease."
"We had a surprise party for her. Her mom and her sisters and my family came down (from the northeast) and we had a survivor part," says Ziemian. "That light at the end of the tunnel...we were finally there."
In September, Melissa had a second mastectomy as a precaution. A year later, the family moved north to Nazareth, Northampton County. However Michael says everything changed when Melissa ran a 5k race the following month and complained of abdominal pain.
"She thought it was a kidney stone. She wasn't alarmed at all but she got a scan and they could immediately see she had some big issues. She had tumors all over her liver," he says.
Two weeks later, they learned Melissa's cancer had metastasized to stage four breast cancer.
"She was immediately crushed. I didn't realize that was really a death sentence," Michael says.
Melissa was ready to do chemotherapy again when she had to be immediately hospitalized. It was then in October 2017 doctors thought she did not have much time left.
"I was freaking out," says Michael.
Melissa though made the decision to end her life. She was put on hospice and the day after Thanksgiving a priest was called to the home to give Melissa her last sacrament.
"We waited for her to pass but she never did," Michael says.
Instead, several months went by and in March 2018 she went back to the doctors. Melissa decided to try chemotherapy from home. The treatment bought the family more time together. That summer, the family took part in an experience called 'Leslie's Week,' a program that provides families battling stage four breast cancer a vacation to Tennessee where they can bond with other families facing the same circumstances.
Melissa continued to battle and made it all the way to Christmas day when her fight ended. She was 42-years-old.
"She was everything to me," Michael explained. "People throw the term soulmates around. We were great friends. She was an incredible mom to two beautiful daughters. Having gone through discussions about the future for the children and what she waned to see, it was so discouraging that she got gypped out of seeing her kids get older."
Michael says the hardest part was telling his daughters the next day their mom was gone and also scrambling to plan a funeral for Melissa. Luckily, Ziemian says his neighbor and 'Every Ribbon Counts' co-founder, Susan Bostian reached out to him. Bostian, using ERC's subsidiary, 'Think Pink Nights,' funded a luncheon at St. Anne's Church in Bethlehem following the services.
"Susan was a big help," he says. "And Melissa, before she died, said she wanted to do some fundraising. So seeing Susan in action made me think of wanting to help out a local cause in Melissa's honor."
Since then, Ziemian has taken part in several events and efforts with ERC and TPN such as 'Bling Your Bra' and 'Knockout Challenge.' Ziemian also took part in a 100-mile bike ride in which he raised $7500 for 'Leslie's Week.'
"I not only want to pay it forward but it is also rewarding to help because I feel like I am able to do that for Melissa," he says.
In the spirit of he and Melissa's relationship, Michael says he is hoping to ramp up his generosity in the same way he and his wife would to get in better shape.
"When you do it (get in shape) you feel better and this is way where I can do something to take some of the pain away," says Ziemian.