Devising a new game plan

Published 9:08 pm Saturday, May 26, 2012

Former Washington High valedictorian Hayley Stowe (right) walks through the jungles of El Remate, Guatemala with local herbal medicine practitioner Doña Maria. (Contributed Photo)

There has been a new development in the war on cancer. It’s still in its early stages but so far its work has been extremely encouraging and inspirational.
It cannot be found in a syringe and wasn’t made in a centrifuge or a petri dish, in fact, it was created right here in Washington. It can talk, and when it does it is very polite. It stands at nearly five-feet, five-inches tall and is blessed with the compassion of Mother Teresa, the brains of Stephen Hawking and the competitive spirit of Pete Rose. Its name is Hayley Stowe, and it’s determined to take on cancer.
For years fans of Washington High School athletics have looked on as Stowe used her all-out style of play to ace opponents on the tennis court, hardwood and diamond, all while acing her exams in the classroom until the four-time all-conference softball player graduated as the school’s valedictorian in 2010.
Now, Stowe is using that same determination that willed her to run into the bleachers for loose balls and hold her ground at home plate to uncover new ground in the world of medical research.
Upon graduation Stowe headed to N.C. State to major in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering on a Park Scholarship, something that nearly 1,200 students apply for but only 45 receive. While the N.C. State campus is only a two-plus hour trip from Washington it has led to a whole new world for Stowe, who has since been to the jungles Guatemala to study herbal medicine under the tutelage of a local 80-year old herbal medicine practitioner and is set to go to Ireland this week to work with an oncology research group in Dublin.
During her spare time Stowe has tried out for, and made, the N.C. State softball team as a catcher-turned-centerfielder, but she is more determined to hit a home run in the medical field than on the playing field.
“Softball is a big part of my life and I love being on a team and all the friends that I have made and the coaches that I have met, but it’s not my life,” Stowe said.

Stowe’s life is dedicated to saving other’s, something she set her mind to doing after witnessing the struggles of a family friend who was stricken with cancer during a time when she was battling a thyroid condition which symptoms included memory loss and constant headaches.
“At the time there was man battling cancer at my church named Jeff Tubaugh, he and his family have been good friends with my family and he taught my Sunday school class. He was battling Melanoma, skin cancer, and he was just an inspiration, the way he was so strong with his faith and how he was staying positive even though he was fighting what was Stage Four cancer. He was like a hero. He battled it for about six years,” Stowe said. “Once I got better I realized that I wanted to somehow make a difference to people that had cancer. That’s why I specifically chose to get involved in oncology. It was because of him, and what a great person he was and what a good role model he was to the entire community and to me especially.”

It was with Tubaugh in mind that Stowe worked as an intern at Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center in Washington during her freshman year. While there she would meet another inspirational figure named Dr. Jennie Crews and came to the conclusion that just working in a lab was not enough. The girl who had always been the first one to roll up her sleeves and do the dirty work for every sports teams she ever played on needed to be on the frontlines when it came to treating cancer patients.
“The thing that struck me about the way Dr. Crews worked was how passionate she was about what she does,” Stowe said. “Oncology can be very sad and emotional but she was always a positive light. Her patients loved her. The ways she always had a positive demeanor was very important and enlightening to me.”
With her newfound focus Stowe changed her major from Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering to a double major in Human Biology and Nutrition, a path that would speed up her journey to med school and allow her to trade in her lab coat for a stethoscope.
“I decided I wanted to be a doctor because I worked in a lab my freshman year and I realized that I liked being around people and having conversations and getting to know about them. I felt like by being stuck in a lab I would be missing a part of my life and interacting with people,” Stowe said. “That summer I worked with Dr. Crews in Washington and I really liked being around people and seeing first-hand the impact you can make.”

It was spring break her freshman year and while students across the country flocked to places like Cancun, Stowe traveled to El Remate, Guatemala. While it may not be a trendy place for the youth of America, the steamy rain forests of El Remate was quite literally a hot spot for Stowe and her other classmates as they worked as part of project IX-Canaan to help educate the locals on healthier ways of living. It was there that Stowe encountered another inspirational female doctor.
“We were on what is called Alternative Spring Break and I met Doña Maria who was an herbal medicine lady in a very, very rural part of town. … She is about 80 years old and walked around the rain forest with a machete chopping things down,” Stowe said. “She took us on an herbal medicine walk and she was pointing out all these plants and told us what they were and what they treated. She said she had all this information in her head. It wasn’t written down. She didn’t have a protégé, it was all in her head.”
She didn’t have a protégé, that is, until she met Stowe.
“When I got back to the states I was talking to my parents and I said I really think I would like to go back there this summer and document it all in a book so that when she dies the community can have it,” Stowe said. “The community is so rural and so far away from a hospital that she is very in demand.”
Once Stowe finished up her final semester of her freshman year she packed her bags and headed back to El Remate and spent a month documenting Maria’s remedies and recording them into a book, which thanks the help of some grants and a bilingual high school friend who helped translate Spanish for her, is in the process of being published. The book is called “Doña Maria’s Herbal Remedies” and all of the proceeds will go to Maria.

Small ball or power ball? Take your pick. There are many schools of thought when it comes to how to win a softball game. Like on the diamond, those in the medical field subscribe to different philosophies.
Modern medicine or herbal remedies? In a highly advanced country like America, the attitude towards third-world countries and their treatment of ailments can at times be dismissive.  However, the team that usually wins the championship, even if it strongly believes in small ball over power ball or vice versus, generally doesn’t do so without having to use a bit of both.
“In Guatemala they don’t count herbal remedies out like I feel like they do in more technologically advanced civilizations,” Stowe said. “There are all these medicines down there. In all the plants and herbs that are in the rain forests there has to be something that is undocumented or might have a particular characteristic that would help cure cancer or could be a part of the medicine that could cure cancer. Maybe there’s a way to merge the natural medicine and the advanced way of life.”
As Stowe sat in the sweltering rain forest of El Remate pouring over endless plants and their alleged purposes, she stumbled upon a remedy that was very dear to her heart.
“There was one. (Maria) called it the “Cancer Herb” and she said it helps with cancer,” Stowe said. “I have no idea about its affects because you can’t bring specimens back without special permission from the government. But I’m passionate about cancer, and the idea that in this rural place where they don’t really know much about cancer that there is an herb that she said specifically helps that was really interesting to me.”
Though extremely passionate about herbal remedies, Stowe has not abandon her faith in modern medicine. Like a good manager, she believes the winning formula lies in blending both schools of thought.
“I think it says a lot that her husband is 90-something years old in a community that relies on Coca-Cola as its primary beverage and he’s still walking around and healthy. I would be at her house and people would show up and ask her for help. I think they wouldn’t be there if she wasn’t proven successful at what she does,” Stowe said. “But, I also think that if they had access to more current modes of being treated they would rely more on that. I think it would it would be great to incorporate both sides. I just feel like people shouldn’t count out this stuff because it has worked in the past and should not be overlooked.”
Sounds like a good game plan.