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A fighting spirit, guided by faith



By Sadie Fowler

It was less than six months ago that Liz Gassaway’s world started spinning faster than the cruise ship she was on. Liz, a lifelong contributor to the walking horse industry as well as an influential person to the local area in many other ways, had gone on a cruise with an employee of hers to relax, but by the time she was off the ship she had medical symptoms that were telling her and her loved ones that something was terribly wrong.

What has resulted in those six months has been an incredible story of Liz Gassaway’s tenacious spirit, a bizarre medical condition that challenged the best oncologists around, and a peace within Gassaway’s soul that could only be guided by God — a story that has inspired the masses.

Before getting into all that, one first must get to know Liz, a woman well-known and loved in the Bedford County and horse community for more reasons than one.

A long-time teacher and advocate for children, especially those with special needs, Liz grew up as a self described horse crazy little girl who gratefully made her mark on the walking horse industry over the years in both pleasure and performances horses. Some of the key horses she has been connected with include multiple world and world grand champion Playin’ Hooky, multiple world and world grand champion A Red Ruby, multiple world and world grand champion Red Sunday’s Best.

Beyond her own personal accomplishments in the horse industry over the years, there’s no telling how many children Liz has influenced by way of her lesson program and famous riding camps, which had an extremely long run until she decided to retire the program in 2008 so she could focus on her own riding career again.

As if teaching, instructing — helping — the hundreds or thousands of kids she has over the years weren’t enough, Liz has also been known locally for the entrepreneur that she is, which is a good transition to where this story really begins.

Back in March of 2019, Liz decided to take an employee who helps her manage a local store on a cruise as a way for the two to relax, have a little fun and recharge. What started as a wonderful week of fun in the sun ended with a terrifying situation that led to where we are today.

Below is a Q&A between Liz and the WHR that showcases Liz’s incredible story of strength and faith — in her own words. Conducted earlier on in the show season, in the heartfelt interview Liz describes how her medical diagnosis unfolded, how she got through it, and where she’s headed today.

FOWLER: First, tell me about yourself, and your journey into the horse world.

GASSAWAY: I am originally from Clarksville, Tennessee, and it all started with my aunt, who raised half Arabians. That’s how I got started in the horse industry. When I was about six, I’d go up to her place and ride.

FOWLER: The walking horse industry has meant a lot to you. Can you describe that connection you have, today?

GASSAWAY: We are a very tight bunch. There are no words to describe what this industry has meant to me, especially after all this (what she’s gone through in recent months). I am so humbled.

FOWLER: After you began riding at your aunt’s place, tell me what followed in terms of your riding career.

GASSAWAY: I was horse-obsessed. When I was about 11, my mom bought Foxfire’s Chance for me. What can you say? The rest is history. I’d do what every teen girl would do and spend hours at the barn … I got “Chance” in 1985. In 1986, I went to the Bowling Green (Kentucky) Horse Show and the first padded horse I saw was Greg Bryant and Secret’s Firefox. I fell in love with him and I wanted a padded horse.

My mom and dad found me a trainer, Don Campbell. Then, Kim and Leigh Stuart were the agents in finding me a horse. I had been going to their riding camps, and so that was how I knew them. They found me Copy’s Mellow Yellow.

FOWLER: You ended up having horses in both performance and pleasure divisions. Tell me about your initial connection with the pleasure aspect.

GASSAWAY: Wallace Brandon was my idol; he was the best pleasure horse trainer living. We met him and he knew of a pleasure horse that would be suited for me. Wallace told my father he would be an idiot if he didn’t buy this horse for me. This pleasure horse, Collector’s Bandit, changed it all … We ended up getting another horse with Wallace, too. All I had ever wanted back then was to be at that level, where Wallace Brandon was at Hickory Hollow in Franklin, Tennessee. I got my wish.

FOWLER: Tell me about your role as an instructor over the years.

GASSAWAY: It was a way of life for many years. I started giving lessons when I was 14 and stopped in 2008, when we moved, so that I could focus on my own horses and get back to showing again. I used to have riding camps in the summer and they were famous around here. I would have three weeks of them every single summer for many years. I loved doing them, but when I stopped in 2008 I was done. It was time.

FOWLER: Tell me about your passion for helping kids with special needs. Where did that passion come from and what have you enjoyed most about that as it relates to your career as a teacher?

GASSAWAY: I have a degree in animal horse science and then my teaching degree is in special education with a focus in severe mentally challenged. My mother’s sister is severely autistic and my father taught a class at Sunday school that was for adults who faced severe mental challenges. So it has always been a passion of mine … I taught at Liberty and then Community High School for many years and I am currently on leave, but what is my favorite part about it? Oh my, that’s easy. The best part is simply walking into the class room and yell my name with enthusiasm. I have students ranging from ninth grade all the way through age 22 and it’s been a joy.

FOWLER: What is your specific role as a special needs teacher?

GASSAWAY: My job is to teach my kids how to love learning and to get them to function best for themselves, whether that is feeding themselves or going to vocational school. You get to teach them and you get to know them. They don’t exactly know what’s up all the time, but I get to have a very special connection and it’s very gratifying.

FOWLER: Let’s move onto the story at hand now. Tell me how all this began.

GASSAWAY: I took my store manager on a cruise during spring break. While there, I started getting sick, feeling nauseous and vomiting and that’s just not me. Before we flew out on our return home I felt like my eyes were off … But throughout the trip, while feeling sick, I worried the whole time. I could not eat. Everyone will tell you I’m the most anxious person living, so this worried me. I worry about everything health-related. While on the trip I ended up Googling my symptoms and I texted a friend of mine who is a nurse practitioner and said, “I think I have jaundice.” She told me to come in when I got back from the cruise.
FOWLER: What happened when you got home?

GASSAWAY: When I got in from the flight and stepped out of the car my husband Mitchell took one look at me and said, “We are going to the ER.” We went to Tullahoma and as soon as we got there they sent me to St. Thomas Rutherford, in the middle of the night. When we got there they started doing testing right away. That was at the end of March. I was so sick, you have no idea.

FOWLER: What did they find after the initial testing?

GASSAWAY: My mom came down, all my friends starting coming in, Mitchell was there. We were all nervous, but they couldn’t figure it out. They did all sorts of testing but they didn’t know. Like I said, I’m a such a nervous person and I think the hospitalist there picked up on this. In the middle of the night I got a call and the hospitalist said, “I get the feeling you’re a very nervous person. I don’t normally do this, but I feel I need to in this case … We found a mass on your pancreas.”

FOWLER: How did you feel?

GASSAWAY: First, I said, “Go get Mitchell.” He was just about to leave the hospital and when they called him back he came rushing in. We had the night to process it. I don’t know … I had this peace, Sadie, from
the minute she told me the news. I had peace and no anxiety all of the sudden. I just felt like if God chooses to save me I will go out to the roof tops and shout for joy, but if not, well, I know I’m going to Heaven.

FOWLER: Tell me about the days that followed.

GASSAWAY: Well, they had done a biopsy on my esophagus during the testing and we soon found there was a spot there, too. We learned it was stage four and had spread to my esophagus, adrenal glands, lymph nodes, and at this time they still couldn’t figure out what was going on with my liver. I said to the hospitalist, “It’s bad, isn’t it?” and she said that if she were me she would go home and get her affairs in order.

FOWLER: How did this play on your emotions?

GASSAWAY: I had this peace, but I also had so much support it was overwhelming. At one time we had 60 people in the room. Everyone was so supportive.

FOWLER: What did you plan to do next?

GASSAWAY: Well, the doctor told me she wanted me to meet with their oncologist, Dr. Johann Brandes, and we said we’d meet with him, but we wanted to get a second opinion. Laurie Toone stepped in and helped us get an appointment at MD Anderson, but we were still going to meet with Dr. Brandes as well. Well, a couple of days later the nurse walked in and tells me that since we were going to MD Anderson she had canceled my oncology appointment with Dr. Brandes. We were like, well, okay. Then, about 30 minutes later the oncologist, Dr. Brandes walks in and I was confused and surprised because we thought he had been canceled.

FOWLER: What did Dr. Brandes tell you?

GASSAWAY: He came over and we talked. We connected right away. He was very to the point and said it was very aggressive. He told Laurie that he’d be glad to refer me to MD Anderson but he still had to try and figure out where this all had started. This type of cancer was like one percent, that’s how rare it was … We soon figured out it had started in the esophagus, where it meets the stomach. Once we knew that, Dr. Brandes said we had to figure out what was going on with my liver … We came home and were getting my affairs in order. We went and saw John T. (Bobo), like everyone does, and were still going to go to MD Anderson. Then, at about noon, we get a call from Dr. Brandes’ office saying they need to get my schedule in order for the chemotherapy treatments. I was confused because we had told him we were going to MD Anderson, but someone had called his office and told him I had not been accepted into MD Anderson. My levels were too low.

FOWLER: What happened next?

GASSAWAY: This was on a Friday and by Monday at 7:45 a.m. they had me set up for emergency chemo and a pet scan at 2 p.m. On Tuesday morning we met with Dr. Brandes and by 9 a.m. I was having my first chemo. I looked up at Mitchell and felt a kind of gut punch. We knew it wasn’t good. Then, all of a sudden, I looked at him and said, “No, you know what? No. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I worried now?” I reminded myself I had already turned it all over to God. This was his will and I again had peace. I just felt like if this is what God wanted … it was his will.

FOWLER: Tell me more about your connection with Dr. Brandes.

GASSAWAY: I believe it was meant to be, the way it all worked about with him and MD Anderson getting canceled. Dr. Brandes … this man is a genius. He has his degree from Johns Hopkins. MD Anderson wouldn’t take me because my bilirubin was too high, which is what was causing the jaundice. They can’t accept levels that are over 11 and mine was 22 at that time. But Dr. Brandes … he made me feel special. He stayed the course and soon enough he said, “I think I’ve found something here.” He had found out that even though I didn’t have breast cancer my body was making the same type of protein that women’s bodies who are experiencing breast cancer make. My body was making that same protein, which was what was making mine spread so fast.

We were rocking along and the Wednesday before Easter, Dr. Brandes’ office called and said they wanted to see us first thing Thursday morning. You know when your oncologist calls and says he needs to see you right away it’s not good news.

FOWLER: What did Dr. Brandes tell you?

GASSAWAY: He said he had bad news and that my kidneys had been reduced by 50 percent and that my numbers were terrible. He said he only had one more option left, which he called the Hail Mary option. He said he could put me in the hospital that weekend and pump me full of fluids to get me strong enough to handle the treatment I needed, which was something called Herceptin, which had to be attached to the chemo I would receive. He thought the Herceptin might work, but it is chemo driven and we didn’t know if we could get my body strong enough to handle that.

He said if this doesn’t work it’s going to be that I go home for quality, not quantity … Watching Mitchell and my mom go through hearing that was that hardest part. Dr. Brandes knew where I was at at this point. I was at peace but watching them go through this was awful. I knew I was going to be going to Heaven, but they’d be the ones left here alone and that was hard.

FOWLER: So you came back during Easter weekend to make one final attempt, where they’d pump your body full of liquids in attempts to make it strong enough to handle the treatment? How were you feeling throughout this weekend in the hospital?

GASSAWAY: We went home and the three of us got my stuff together for the weekend. I looked at
the two of them and said, “This is it guys. This is what they call blind faith. We have no control at this point.” … It turned out we had one of the best times of our life that weekend. As it turned out, my numbers didn’t go up but Dr. Brandes came in after that weekend and said, “We’re doing this. We’re going to do it anyway.” He’s awesome.

FOWLER: So they made the attempt to get the Herceptin in you?

GASSAWAY: Yes, and the entire Hercetin got in me and they were able to give me other dose of chemo, too … the next day, my numbers started going down … It’s all God.

FOWLER: What has been the hardest part of this?

GASSAWAY: I’m at peace, I think I only cried once. Even though in the beginning everyone who knows me thought I’d freak out because I’m such an anxious person … I was at peace. I knew I was going to Heaven but leaving the others here to suffer … I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

FOWLER: What have you learned throughout all this?

GASSAWAY: To put your total faith in God. Turn it all over to him. I didn’t ask him for this. HE gave me this peace … God told me I’m coming home, but he didn’t say when. He said, “Don’t change your life. You’re going to Heaven and you’ll be fine.” I do believe he has a plan for me.

Fowler: How has faith helped you and where did you get your faith?

GASSAWAY: I’ve always been faithful but not like this. I can’t imagine going through something like this and not having God or faith. He gets you where you need to be. He has it all.

FOWLER: Where else do you find your inspiration?

GASSAWAY: I couldn’t do it without my mom and Mitchell, my friends and family. They go with me everywhere, but really, it’s all about faith. Their faith has strengthened as a result of this as well.

FOWLER: What do you want your walking horse friends to know about you?

GASSAWAY: I would like to tell them that God will never forsake you. We are all sinners. He loves us, good or bad. He will never leave your side. You might feel like he’s left you but if you feel that way he’s probably carrying you. That’s what I want people to understand. I wasn’t going to go public with all this, but God will put something on my heart to share and I will. If I feel something I will share it on Facebook, for example, and then I hear from all sorts of people who say I am helping them with their struggle.

FOWLER: Now that the Herceptin is working, how do you feel about the faith aspects of all this?

GASSAWAY: I say to God, “I’m not begging to live, but if you choose to save me I will shout it from the roof top.” If you can be positive through a stage four cancer diagnosis you can do anything … I feel great.

FOWLER: What advice would you give your younger self?

GASSAWAY: I would not change one day. I am 46 and wouldn’t change a thing, except maybe I’d try to witness more.

FOWLER: Do you have a motto?

GASSAWAY: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

FOWLER: Now that it’s mid-June, how are you feeling now?

GASSAWAY: I a m doing great. My Bilirubin levels were at 2.7 last week so I bet it’s down even more with today’s labs … Dr. Brandes was thrilled with how I’m doing. He was all smiles today.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: UPDATE ON LIZ

Since the Walking Horse Report first met with Liz Gassaway back in the early part of show season, great progress has been made — things are looking up. As of mid-summer, Liz had had five chemotherapy treatments and the recent CT scan indicated some of the cancer is gone and the other has shrunk by 50 percent.

“Praise God,” she said. “This is a miracle. I have gone back to riding and showing and I actually feel really good.”

Liz will be doing chemotherapy treatments through September and then hopes to be cancer free and in remission.

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