At Chai Point, after director’s diagnosis, residents offer strength

Some people have a fear of aging. But not Trish Cohn, executive director of Ovation Chai Point.

Cohn’s grandparents impressed upon her from an early age that being old was not a bad thing. They enjoyed life and engaged in acts of kindness in the larger community. When life became more challenging for them, Cohn’s elderly relatives retained a sense of humor and humility.

So it wasn’t a great surprise to Cohn’s family and friends that she would find fulfillment working with senior citizens in our community. But in mid-May of 2018, with 22 years of employment at Chai Point, Cohn received the shock of a lifetime. She was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Trish Cohn, executive director of Ovation Chai Point and seen here behind residents, was treated for cancer in the spring of 2018.

Sally Moskol is activities assistant with Ovation Communities. In this piece, she writes about Executive Director Trish Cohn’s fight with breast cancer, and how Cohn found comfort.

“I was at the top of my game,” Cohn said. “I served in several roles at Chai Point over 20 years, mostly as program director. The diagnosis came in my second year as executive director.”

Facing a double mastectomy and months of chemotherapy, this extremely positive leader in the Jewish community now dealt with the fear of not being able to grow older. Her comfort, support and strength came from the very individuals who had trusted her with their daily well-being: the elderly residents of Chai Point, 1400 N. Prospect Ave., Milwaukee.

After the diagnosis, but before the entire treatment plan had been established, Cohn made a decision to be transparent with the Chai Point community. She wrote a letter to the residents and staff about her breast cancer and advised that she would be in and out of her office, with appointments and consults in those first few weeks.

“In corporate America, my illness may have been kept under wraps or hidden. But look, I’m in the people business. Our folks are used to seeing me every day, with my door almost always open. I felt that they deserved to know what was happening,” Cohn said.

Being upfront prevented rumors from starting and gave people some time to prepare for what would be Cohn’s five-month absence. 

In the three short weeks between her diagnosis and surgery, support from the residents was steady and strong.

Cohn reflected on those first weeks, “I hardly got any work done! There was a line outside of my office, with residents coming in to wish me well. I was really touched, especially by the residents who shared their own stories of cancer with me. These conversations were candid, honest and raw. I had helped these residents adjust to life in a senior home; now they were helping me adjust to a new reality.”

On the day of Cohn’s surgery in June of 2018, Ovation Chai Point was a sea of pink, the color most associated with the fight against breast cancer. Pink ribbons filled the lobby area and covered Cohn’s office door. Frosted pink cupcakes were served to all residents and visitors.

Staff and residents were updated regularly by Cohn. Photos were shared on the Chai Point lobby’s video announcement screen. But the communication was hardly one-way. Cohn was blown away by the continual notes, cards, flowers and positive messages sent out by residents on a daily basis. The well wishes and prayers for her recovery were reminders to Cohn of a loving community. The residents knew that Chai Point’s director of nursing, Nurse Cheryl Buckman, was a regular visitor to Cohn. Buckman often brought along gifts from the residents, which included homemade soups and treats. 

“I have 50 Jewish mothers at Chai Point! One day I tried sharing the halvah bar gifts with one of my doctors. I think he is still trying to figure that one out!” Cohn said.

One resident insisted on visiting Cohn during a chemo session and Buckman agreed to take her. The resident and Cohn both burst into tears upon seeing each other. 

“I was sitting in the recliner, all hooked up, and joking with the oncology nurses, and there stood a resident, Karen, at the entrance of the treatment area.  I was overcome with love for her and all the people I missed on Prospect Avenue,” Cohn said.  

Cohn’s executive assistant, Cheyenne Ensor, also played a role in making sure that communications from the residents were regularly delivered to Cohn’s home.

Cohn was by no means alone during her cancer discovery and treatment. 

“Not to brag, or kvell too much, but I have a wonderful partner, four amazing children, two fabulous son-in-laws, awesome siblings and now four completely adorable grandchildren,” Cohn said. “And I have good friends. All of these people played important roles in my healing.”

The flexibility and support of the Ovation Communities leadership gave Cohn great peace of mind during her months away.

Still, her thoughts continue to return to the huge job that the residents did to keep her spirits up.

“Their leader was down. They took the lead in keeping me up. Never, ever underestimate the strength of an elderly person.”

Cohn returned to work full-time in December, 2018. She has truly enjoyed reconnecting with residents and their families and getting to know the new folks who moved in during her absence. She continues to live by the wisdom of kindness.

Cohn reflected, “In the Talmud, to brighten someone’s day, to have your own day enriched by another person who cares about you, this is a good life.”