Local woman who beat odds giving thanks for her family

Melanie Woodby joins her mother, Lilly Yourist, 85, at Mrs.  Yourist’s Sylvania Township home. Both have survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Mrs. Yourist also experienced organ failure and underwent heart surgery.
Melanie Woodby joins her mother, Lilly Yourist, 85, at Mrs. Yourist’s Sylvania Township home. Both have survived non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Mrs. Yourist also experienced organ failure and underwent heart surgery.

Lilly Yourist and her daughter, Melanie Woodby, know what they’ll be saying thanks for today at the dinner table — each other.

Mrs. Yourist, 85, was near death eight years ago after she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, suffered almost total organ failure, and underwent a risky open-heart surgery to replace a major valve to her heart.

She remained on dialysis until Thanksgiving Day in 2004, when her kidneys began functioning on their own again.

Mrs. Yourist has been going strong ever since.

“My mother is 85 going on 22,” Mrs. Woodby said.

“I can’t keep up with her.”

Two years ago, Mrs. Woodby, 55, was given a diagnosis of the same form of lymphoma as her mother had.

Both women are in remission today, grateful for each other and for their entire family who saw them through the illnesses.

“We’ve always been a real close family, but Thanksgiving is just extra special now,” Mrs. Woodby said.

Mrs. Yourist, whose late husband, Leo, owned the former Leo’s Book Shop in downtown Toledo for more than 40 years, said Thanksgiving always has been her favorite holiday — in part because it’s focused on spending time with family, not exchanging material gifts.

“I’ve always been so grateful,” she said.

“My mother always told me, ‘Lilly, if you have a problem, put it in God’s hands. Leave it up to God.’ And that’s what I’ve always done.”

Dr. Howard L. Ritter, Jr., the hematologist-oncologist who saw both mother and daughter through their bouts with cancer, continues to see them every six months.

It still amazes him how Mrs. Yourist recovered from the multiple health problems that someone with a less positive attitude might not have survived, he said.

“She’s really one for the books,” Dr. Ritter said.

“Her spirit has just been remarkable. She’s exuberant. She’s optimistic, bubbly, just full of life. All through her treatment she was this way.”

“I never thought about dying. I never did,” Mrs. Yourist said simply. “I never thought about it at all.”

It helped immensely that Mrs. Woodby, a registered nurse, and her two brothers, Jay and Darryl Yourist, became their mother’s advocates, making sure she got the best treatment and the treatment she desired.

“Every doctor that was lined up to see her said to me, ‘Melanie, just let her go to hospice.’ And I said, ‘Listen: My feeling is this, if my mother wants to die and go to hospice, that’s going to be her business. My mother still has a voice and if she wants to live, I’m going to be her advocate and I’m going to help her as much as I can.’”

Mrs. Woodby and her brothers did the heavy lifting, but Mrs. Yourist made her own decisions.

When it became apparent her body would not tolerate the chemotherapy Dr. Ritter typically ordered, he and Mrs. Yourist decided to treat the lymphoma with medication that normally would be paired with chemotherapy. It worked.

Mother and daughter credit a team of wonderful physicians, including Mrs. Yourist’s family doctor, Elizabeth Hoffman, and heart surgeon Michael Moront, who reluctantly performed the open-heart surgery. Mrs. Woodby said they were told there was a 70 percent chance her mother would not survive the surgery because of her age and condition.

“Dr. Moront told her ‘your risks are very high, but I’m going to do the surgery,’ ” Mrs. Woodby recalled.

“ ... She said to him, ‘I die in the bed here or I die on the table.’ ”

“But there’s a very slim chance that I might just live,” Mrs. Yourist chimed in, adding, “And he looked at me and he went like this [gave a thumbs up] and he said, ‘Rock on, Lilly.’ ”

Today, Mrs. Yourist will travel just a few blocks from her Sylvania Township home to spend the holiday with her twin sister, Pearl Jaffe, and her family. Her only daughter, her son-in-law, Tom Woodby, and 19-year-old granddaughter, Falyn, will be at the dinner table, too.

Mrs. Woodby is making pumpkin pie, pecan pie bars, and New York cheesecake as well as some traditional dishes the family enjoys — cranberry mold and chopped liver. Mrs. Yourist is making Italian meatballs.

“I think Thanksgiving has always meant more to us than Christmas and Hanukkah because all people are focused in on is buying gifts,” Mrs. Woodby said.

“Thanksgiving isn’t about the gifts.

"Yeah, it’s about some terrific food, but it’s being with family. It’s sharing with each other and just being thankful that we’re all together.”

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.