The past year for Tracy and Michael Underwood has been filled with surprises and doctor visits, but the couple said it’s also been filled with support, prayer and appreciation for life.
The Lebanon couple has been together for 28 years, including 23 years of marriage, and said their world was rattled last October when Michael was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the throat
“Ever since I was probably 15, I’ve never been sick — ever. January or February last year I went to the doctor and had light drainage and stuff, kind of like allergies. I got a Z-Pack and it cleared it up,” Michael said.
However, about six months later, he found himself back at the doctor with similar drainage issues. He said doctors found it odd he would need two doses in the same year, but received another treatment, but said it did not fully clear the drainage issue.
As the drainage worsened, Tracy said she urged him to seek medical care after his voice started to change. Michael went to a clinic, which referred him to an ears, nose and throat doctor where he underwent a CT scan.
“Before we had even talked to a doctor, we were getting calls from the (Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center),” Michael recalled. “That was nerve-racking — before your talk to doctors, you’re getting calls from the cancer center. From there it was just a whirlwind.”
Michael had daily trips to Vanderbilt for radiation and weekly trips to the center for chemotherapy — totaling 30 rounds of radiation and six rounds of chemotherapy.
“The pace was stunning to me. It just went so fast,” he said.
“It’s hard because you got three kids and you think the worst automatically,” said Tracy, who was set to donate a kidney to her friend, Dean Gentry, of Cookeville, when they found out about Michael’s diagnosis.
Gentry had been in kidney failure for five years and met the Underwoods when he sold flowers to A.J.’s Flowers and Gifts, which Tracy owns with her mother, Marcia Pruitte, when the shop opened 11 years ago.
“When I was tested, Saint Thomas West told us it would kind of be a hard shot because we’re not family or blood relatives. I was a 100 percent match,” she said. “It was in my heart. He’s got four small children and I knew their lifestyle had changed because he was on dialysis every single day. This was going to be a lifestyle change.”
However, due to Michael’s diagnosis and impending treatment, all parties agreed to wait until he was better before continuing with the kidney transplant. Michael’s cancer was gone by March, but as Tracy prepared to donate her kidney, the transplant center was shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had to make sure he was good. We both couldn’t have life-threatening things going on,” Tracy said.
The couple said due to Michael’s diagnosis and treatment coming before peak flu season, they were prematurely prepared for the pandemic as they took precautions to protect their health.
“We were already masking when we went out and sanitizing everything. We stayed in and didn’t really eat out. We didn’t even get takeout (food). So, when all the other stuff hit with COVID, it was kind of like we already planned for it and used to it,” Tracy said.
On July 7, Tracy donated her kidney to Gentry through a six-hour surgery with no complications. She said recovery was tougher than she thought it would be, but they both recovered nicely.
The couple said the support they received throughout the past year was key to Michael’s recovery and her donation, including their church group at Immanuel Baptist Church.
“It was prayer. We had so many people praying for us,” Michael said. “It was so many people always talking about being in their prayers. It was non-stop. It gets to your heart when you know that so many people care.”
“They were completely supportive. They wrapped their arms around us. They helped us financially. They helped us with food. They helped us with everything,” said Tracy, who said the couple and their three children created a prayer chain link with inspirational messages that Michael would cut off after each treatment.
She also praised the work of Sherry’s Run, who she said immediately arrived at their door to offer help after Michael’s diagnosis. Tracy said it was a surreal moment when Sherry’s Run staff arrived because she was busy making 200 green bows associated with Sherry’s Run the week before Michael received his diagnosis.
“When you make it and you’re put in those shoes, it’s different,” she said. “My heart has always been with Sherry’s Run when I make bows for them. But now when I make them, I will always remember that they helped us while we were facing the unknown.”
Sherry’s Run helped the family with groceries, mortgage payments and medical bills.
“Before when I would see the green bows, I would think, ‘Oh, that’s kind of cool.’ Now, it’s almost like ‘Thank you,’ ” Michael said.
This year’s 17th Annual Sherry’s Run 5K Run/Walk on Saturday is a virtual event which means participants can run or walk in their neighborhood, at the park or on a treadmill.
Registration is available at www.sherrysrun.org or at the Sherry’s Run Office, 110 Babb Dr. in Lebanon. The registration fee is $30. All registrations include an event T-shirt.
The organization’s traditional Green Bows are available at the Sherry’s Run Office from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. The recommended donation price for the bows is $10. For information call (615) 925-2592 or go to www.sherrysrun.org.