By T.J. Pyette
Fifth-grade teacher Suzie Larsen is wrapped in a blanket of love every time she undergoes chemotherapy treatment in Great Falls for breast cancer.
The blanket is a handmade quilt painstakingly sewn by many of her fellow teachers and friends and carrying more than 70 individual messages of faith, hope and love.
The quilt, a project spearheaded by colleague Vicky Michaels, has become a symbol of the love and support Larsen said she has received from the Havre school system, and the entire Hi-Line community.
"This outpouring of kindness could only be found in a small community like Havre," Larsen said. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't receive a hug, a prayer or some words of encouragement from my colleagues, students and friends."
Shortly after being diagnosed with a rare form of inflammatory breast cancer at the end of September, Larsen met with a group of friends and made the decision to continue teaching throughout her cancer treatment regimen, which could last for up to a year or more. A teacher since 1971, Larsen couldn't imagine not being able to go to school.
"I knew I couldn't quit teaching; it is everything to me," Larsen said. With the support of school staff and administration, she has been able to continue teaching, with some slightly unusual classroom accommodations and schedule modifications.
Larsen said her class of fifth-graders has adapted to her illness and has offered her an amazing amount of compassion, caring and kindness.
"They wash their hands three times a day, without even being asked," Larsen said. This helps keep the germs in the classroom to a minimum in order to protect her against infection since her immune system has been compromised by the cancer and the chemotherapy treatments.
In addition, a maintenance worker cleans the desks in Larsen's classroom at least twice a day.
Fellow teachers Marilyn Granell and Karla Geda have taken over Larsen's science curriculum, so that she can get more rest, and elementary counselor Dana West has spoken with each of Larsen's students about her illness.
"The kids have been so accepting," Larsen said. "We were honest with them from the start, and they are so helpful to me." Larsen added that the parents of her students have been accepting and caring as well.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller said Larsen is a very integral part of the school's team and he thinks she does a wonderful job with the students in her charge.
"Suzie has dealt with her health problems in a very professional manner and has helped her students and colleagues understand the obstacles she is facing. It has turned into a learning experience for everyone involved."
Larsen said she is grateful for the experience.
"It really has been the most wonderful three months of my life," she said. She thinks the cancer has been a blessing in disguise because of the genuine warmth that has been showered upon her by school district students and employees and Havre residents.
"I can't say enough about the love and support that I have received," she added.
Many teachers have promised to transfer their sick leave to Larsen so she can continue her treatment when she has used all of her own, Larsen said.
Miller said, "We all work together as a team to meet individual challenges as they come up. That's just the type of atmosphere we have created here in our schools."
Shortly after being diagnosed, Larsen received flowers from the Havre High School Student Congress, which lifted her spirits and served to bolster her feeling that she was doing the right thing by continuing to teach.
Many Havre students remember Larsen as a substitute teacher for 10 years before she landed a full-time teaching job at the middle school in 1998. She taught there for two years before moving to Sunnyside Intermediate School.
A connection with a former student brought Larsen one of her most treasured Christmas gifts: a personal visit from the Havre High Hi-Liters.
Larsen had lamented to former student Chris Peterson, who is now a member of the Hi-Liters, that she was disappointed because she would miss the group's annual visit to Sunnyside due to a scheduled session of chemotherapy.
Unexpectedly, the group added Larsen's home to its list of stops and spent time with her that day singing, dancing and bringing holiday cheer.
Choir director Frank Payn said Peterson told him about Larsen's situation and asked if the group could sing for Larsen at her home.
"When we got on the bus that morning, I asked the kids if they would give a portion of their lunch time to make the stop, and they all really wanted to," Payn said.
"It was very moving. There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugs and also a lot of laughter," he added. "It was probably the best thing we did that day, maybe the best thing we've done in a long time."
"I felt so privileged and so honored," Larsen said.
A teacher on the Hi-Line before moving to Havre from Rudyard in 1988, Larsen said the support that has kept her going comes from all along the Hi-Line.
"Moving to this area is the best thing we ever did," said Larsen, who previously lived in Billings.
Larsen has at least two more sessions of chemotherapy before she undergoes surgery to remove a tumor that has already shrunk to less than half its original size. After surgery, she said, she will undergo radiation treatment.
Larsen remains positive in the face of her lengthy and exhausting course of treatment.
"We want to make this as positive as possible, especially for the students," she said.
One thing Larsen said the students have enjoyed is her collection of wigs. "We're going to have a wig contest after the holidays, and the winning student will get to choose their favorite wig and wear it for a day," she said with a chuckle.
"This one is my favorite," Larsen added, twisting a piece of the blond hair in her fingers.
Larsen said she looks forward to the future and to the start of the next school year.
"Because of my faith in God and all the people praying for me, I know that when I go back to school next year, I'll be able to stand up and say, 'I'm cancer-free and I am in remission.'"