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The fight of her life: Longtime activist Healy battles cancer
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2015-01-27

This article shared 3584 times since Tue Jan 27, 2015
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Sheila Healy focuses on today, maybe tomorrow. She finds joy with her beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniel dog named Maddie and such simple things as the NFL playoff victory Jan. 11 by her beloved Green Bay Packers. She never looks too far ahead—be it a week, month and certainly not a year. She was, for instance, supposed to go on an Olivia cruise in February to Australia, but knows she likely will have to cancel; she just doesn't think she'll be strong enough to withstand the long flight.

Her life changed so dramatically last May.

Healy was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer, which she said, "was the shock of my life."

Healy, 56, a longtime LGBT activist who worked as a social worker/psychotherapist for about 20 years, has lived in northwest suburban Wheeling for two years. She is originally from Milwaukee, has lived in Chicago, as well as far northwest suburban Lake Villa and McHenry.

She has endured 13 radiation treatments since last summer and, in the process, lost her hair, though it is now growing back. The treatments "were very effective; they helped a lot," she said.

Healy also has had chemotherapy—three rounds for three days each time. "That helped some, but not as much as the radiation," she said.

A lesbian who came out in 1980, Healy is now single, in hospice.

She has lost about 45 pounds and, when she spoke with Windy City Times Jan. 12, said her daily diet wasn't much more than crackers and milkshakes.

"The painkillers are working, so I'm OK," she said. "My friends have been super; they've been great."

Healy has even planned and paid for her funeral.

"I don't know how much time I have left … no one will give you an answer to how long you will, or might, live, which is very frustrating. Just give me an idea," she said.

Healy, though, has imminent plans, such as, books she wants to read, expanding her meditation and not being as frightened as she often is. She rarely drives anymore.

"I think the dying part has sunk in about 80 percent," she said. "Mostly, I've accepted it. It doesn't seem fair, though. But I did the best I could while I was here."

Healy is immensely proud of her activism, linked through the Lesbian Separatist Movement, which she said, "seems to have fit into my life so perfectly, like I was born at the right time and I feel so grateful to have been here while this work was happening, in whatever part of it I was."

She also fondly recalled showing horses and raising a reserve world champion.

Healy comes from a very Catholic background, and the first person she told, at age 20, that she was gay was a priest. He asked if she was gay, and she confirmed it.

"For about a month I let him send me to therapists, who tried to change me, but then I realized that, well, everything came together [when I came out]; it was like all of the latches on my doors had clicked when I said I was gay," she said.

Healy was soon outed by that priest to all her friends, "and I lost every single one of them; it was very hurtful," she said. "I really trusted that priest. It broke my heart what he did to me."

But Healy found a home, a community and a host of friends in Chicago LGBT community. And that was, unfortunately, right at the start of the AIDS epidemic.

"With a lot of my [lesbian] friends, they had an attitude that they thought if the AIDS crisis was happening to [lesbians] that the gay boys wouldn't be there for us. So they weren't going to be there for them. I couldn't stomach that," she said.

Healy became involved with ACT UP and other groups/organizations that helped those impacted by HIV/AIDS. She worked with those affected at Cook County Hospital and protested for support in Washington, D.C.

"I watched too many friends die; it was extremely difficult," she said.

Healy attended about 15 AIDS-related funerals—still hurtful, decades later.

"The 1980s were really hard, really difficult, but that's when I found a place where I felt I really fit—in the lesbian community," she said. "I saw other people who looked like me, who wanted to do the [same] things I wanted to do. I made close relationships. And though the activism was hard work, it felt good to be doing that."

Healy even endured an AIDS-related drama at a gay bar in the early 1990s, she said. Healy had a heart condition and, while at the bar, needed an ambulance. The bartender called, but he was told that none was coming.

Healy was irate and called back, demanding an ambulance.

"I knew the reason they didn't want to come—they thought it was AIDS-related [patient]," Healy said. "It was as if you could see relief on [the paramedics] face when they realized it was for a woman with a heart problem."

Healy said, without question, the biggest change she's witnessed in the gay community over the years centers on the AIDS crisis. "[The disease] brought about the most change to the gay and the lesbian communities, because the lesbians finally figured out that they need to help with this, that they can't just go along and forget about it. The two communities got closer together [through the crisis]."

Healy also worked for years in the criminal justice field, doing psychological evaluations for criminal and civil court. She worked on her PhD at the University of Chicago, and she wrote a thesis there that examined suicide rates among gay youth.

Also during her career, Healy worked on anti-bullying programs within schools in the suburbs where she lived, in conjunction with Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.


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