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Honoring a fellow fighter

Last Modified: January 24, 2023

Cancer, Generosity Heals


By the spring of 2020, Barbara Riker, a retired nurse with a tireless thirst for wanderlust, had developed a severe cough. “We were going to Hawaii,” her husband, Greg, recalled. “She wanted to put it off until we got back.”

Shortly after their trip, Barbara, who never smoked, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer, non-small cell, and began receiving treatment immediately. “The initial news was not good. They said, best case scenario, she had half a year.” Barbara had other plans.

Through these unfortunate circumstances, Sarah Wang, MD, Parkview Packnett Family Cancer Institute, entered the Rikers’ lives. “I can't put into words that relationship between the two of them – my wife and Dr. Wang – but there was a bond there that was as important as the medical treatment,” Greg said. “Barb trusted her implicitly.”

Dr. Wang ordered chemotherapy, which worked well for a while, but eventually the cancer adjusted to it. They next turned to radiation therapy and, finally oral chemotherapy.

“My wife lived for 22 months, and honestly, she had a pretty good quality of life for 19 of those,” Greg shared. “Dr. Wang called me one night and told me I better get our sons home. She’d done everything she could, but Barb's body just wouldn't tolerate the last round of chemo. Her kidneys were giving out. She was upset. Dr. Wang was such a fighter and Barb was a fighter, and they just wanted to beat it.”

“Even after she suspended the chemotherapy, Dr. Wang still came and visited my wife in the hospital every day. The last time she visited her, Dr. Wang was getting ready to go on vacation. She came in and asked if she could hug Barb. She did and then she just stood at her bedside and stared at Barb for several minutes. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. The two of us went into the hallway and she apologized to me. I told her she didn’t owe me any apology. She gave me more time with Barb. She told me my wife was a unique patient, and she just hated losing this battle.”

Barbara passed away on April 2, 2022.

“We had a memorial service on the Chesapeake Bay, where her grandparents own property right on the water and had a farm growing up. She moved around a lot as a kid, and that’s the place she considered home.”

Barbara was a mother to two sons, 39 and 35. She was a grandmother. She loved to travel and shared that passion with her children, taking each to Hawaii when they graduated. “She would have lived out of a suitcase,’ Greg chuckled. “I think she got to see what she wanted to.”

She was a woman of deep faith and grace. “Barb never complained throughout the entire process – not one time while she was in the hospital or when we took care of her at home. She always had a smile on her face. I don’t think she was in denial. She knew the diagnosis wasn’t good. But her positive attitude and her spirit helped get her through it. She was determined to fight, and she knew Dr. Wang was a brilliant oncologist. I think her attitude was part of what created their bond.” 


Giving Dr. Wang her wings

Just before the holidays, Greg decided to honor Dr. Wang by making a donation in her name to the Parkview Foundations’ Guardian Angel program.  

“Barb would have been happy I did it,” Greg said. “The medical care was excellent. We put all of our trust in Dr. Wang and don’t regret it for a second. I know her and her team did everything they could. But what truly impressed me was the compassion that she showed my wife throughout those 22 months. They developed a very special connection. I can’t count how many times Dr. Wang broke down during our visits. At one point, I told Dr. Wang that I didn’t know how she did this for a living. I couldn’t deal with the pain day in and day out. Her quick response was, ‘I don’t concentrate on the failures, just the successes.’”

On the day Greg presented Dr. Wang with her pin, they took him to the fifth floor in Oncology, where a crowd of nurses had gathered to remember Barb and celebrate one of their own. “I recognized a lot of faces but couldn't remember names,” he said. “I think Barb crossed paths with most of them. They were phenomenal. The entire staff was so compassionate. I used to tell my wife how amazing it was that we didn’t encounter a single jerk in nearly two years.”

Barbara used to leave Greg daily bible verse cards, one to read each day of the year. It’s a tradition he still observes. On the day of his visit to honor Dr. Wang, he pulled Psalm 119:50: “My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life.” 

“I don’t think my wife ever left a visit or treatment not feeling better emotionally. I know she felt she got exceptional treatment, and nurses can be tough critics. But she never criticized Dr. Wang. She trusted her. My hope in this donation is that Dr. Wang will get some recognition and maybe sharing our experience will help someone else.”  

Greg’s donation will go to the Parkview Foundations’ Transformative Cancer Care Fund (TCCF) to support Parkview Packnett Family Cancer Institute patients. You can learn more about the program and how to support the initiative here.

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