CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - It's one of the most devastating things a parent can experience: the death of a child. It's difficult to imagine it happening once, but one Lowcountry doctor has had to deal with it twice.
Dr. Thaddeus John Bell makes his living as a medical doctor, but he was helpless to save two of the people he loved the most.
He told our Ann McGill that he found strength in his faith, family and friends to go on.
"My oldest child, Thaddeus John Bell, II had just graduated from Morehouse," Dr. Bell recalled. "Two months after graduating, he passed away from a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in other words."
That was 1992. Thad was Dr. Bell's only son.
"At that time he loved basketball, he tried to play basketball while he was at St. Andrews, he wasn't that good but he loved the game," he said.
While Dr. Bell was devastated, he suppressed his own grief to help his then wife and their two other children.
"I had to project a picture of strength to be able to help my family get through this."
He says faith, along with the love and support of friends and colleagues helped him to cope.
"Then my running buddies surrounded me and kept me busy doing the things they knew I liked to do which was running at the time," he said.
He also poured his energy into supporting his daughters, Tiffany and Tonisha. He and Tonisha had a special bond.
He fondly recalls, "I knew she was my daughter, but we had a relationship on another level. We just respected one another as adults."
He thought Tonisha would follow in his footsteps, but after college, she moved to Japan to teach. She lived there for two years and loved it.
"But when she came back to South Carolina, I had just started Closing the Gap in Healthcare and when she found out about it, she embraced it with all her being."
"Closing The Gap" is a program that educates and encourages African Americans to take ownership of their health. Tonisha was doing something for her health, when she felt something strange.
Dr. Bell vividly remembers, "Tonisha was walking across the Cooper River Bridge one afternoon and immediately came to my office and said that she had a weird pain in her thigh and she was wondering whether or not she had pulled a muscle."
As her father, he was concerned. As a doctor, he insisted on an MRI.
"And the MRI showed she had what they thought was a blood clot. Tonisha was seven months pregnant at the time."
She was pregnant with her second child when she had surgery to remove the blood clot. They thought everything would be ok.
"But three weeks later he called me and told me that it was soft tissue sarcoma and that it was the most aggressive one that they knew about," said Dr. Bell.
It was 2013. Tonisha, 31, had cancer.
"I just sat there and I remember just weeping that whole afternoon. I didn't want to talk to anybody, as a matter of fact I didn't talk to anybody, I didn't let anybody know."
First his son, now his baby girl.
Tonisha documented her illness and treatment via social media for "Closing The Gap In Healthcare." She made the following statement during an interview after she had lost her hair to chemotherapy.
"A lot of time after I've had chemo, I can't think clearly, my hands shake a lot, I feel very um, a lot of noise, makes me upset, like where I just can't function."
Dr. Bell adds, "And I remember going to see her and she was very upset that she had lost her hair, so I said well don't worry about it, I'm gonna get all mine cut off and we'll look alike. So I did, I cut off all my hair. And about six weeks later Tonisha's hair started growing back, mine never did grow back,' he chuckles.
From the beginning, Tonisha had insisted that her father see all of her test results before she did. After a year, the chemo was no match for the disease, and the cancer started to spread.
Dr. Bell recalled, "I didn't want to call her and tell her we got the results and the results didn't look good."
Ann McGill asked him, "Did you have to tell, did you have to call your daughter and basically tell her that she was dying?"
"Yes," he responds.
He went on to say, "When Tonisha recognized that she was going to die, she started making these plans about her bucket list. And one of the things that she insisted that we do is that we all go to Jamaica and have a good time."
And they did. Then there was a trip with her oldest child, for some mommy-daughter time.
"They went to New York, they went to Broadway. She told me that she wanted to make sure that her daughter knew her mother, knew who she was."
The last thing on her the bucket list was to say "I do," all over again.
Dr. Bell stated, "So she renewed her vows and about a week later, she passed away."
Tonisha Bell Alston passed away March 16, 2015, just three days before her 34th birthday.
With glassy eyes Dr. Bell said, "And I think she did a lot of praying and I think that she reconciled with God. Yeah."
McGill asked him, "You miss her a lot?"
He responds, "Yeah. There's uh, because we talked so much on the telephone, I still get up in the morning and just call both of my daughters. Call Tonisha and find out what's going on."
Her humble spirit and zest for life gave Dr. Bell hope after her death.
"She never asked 'why me,' she was always very upbeat and very willing to talk about it."
In one of the final statements in her documentary, Tonisha expresses gratitude to family, friends and loved ones.
"Thank you to everyone who has prayed for me, sent me cards, letters, emails, donated to my fundraiser. Thought about me, sent positive wishes my way, they are really amazing, makes me feel I'm on cloud nine," she says.
Tonisha's death was neither quick nor painless, but Dr. Bell says her ordeal with chemotherapy helped him to become a more compassionate caregiver, appreciating how the treatment impacts not just the patient, but loved ones as well.
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