Jim Sullivan getting well with a little help from the Island

Jim Sullivan. Photo by Sara Piazza
Photo by Sara Piazza

By Joyce Wagner - September 14, 2006

"My friends have been great," says Jim Sullivan, his dark eyes peeking out from beneath a tangle of long black eyebrows. "I haven't been able to work through this whole thing. The people at the farm have been pretty much supporting me."

"This whole thing" refers to a battle with colon cancer, temporarily complicated by Jim's fifth bout of Lyme disease. During our interview a few weeks ago, he sipped coffee at a table in the Black Dog Café, remarkably cheerful and even healthy looking despite his next stop: to the ferry for yet another off-Island chemo session.

Jim was diagnosed with cancer early last December. After he showed symptoms of lower intestinal problems, an ebbing of his energy, and an inexplicable weight loss, the medical professionals at the Edgartown clinic came up with the cancer verdict and recommended an intensive round of chemo and radiation, then surgery, then more chemo. But, because he was also fighting Lyme disease, his cancer treatments were postponed.

"I started chemo in February," Jim recalls. "Six weeks of intensive, every day, 24 hours a day, five days a week chemo, and radiation every day. I had four weeks off (to recover) then I had the surgery. Another eight weeks to recover from that. Now I'm going up (to Massachusetts General Hospital) to have a CAT scan, to make sure nothing else is happening, then start chemo again." This time, the treatment will be two days a week, 24 hours, for six months. The "cocktail" is administered by a small, portable pump. "You walk around with what I call 'the man purse,'" Jim chuckles.

"The farm" Jim refers to is Native Earth Teaching Farm on North Road in Chilmark - the site of a recent fund-raiser, a barbecue of sorts, that garnered more than $1,400 for Jim's medical related expenses - mostly travel off-Island - that are not covered by insurance. He had been living and working on the farm on and off for about two years, but lately, since he's become too ill to work, the proprietors, Rebecca Gilbert and Randy Ben David, have continued to provide room, board, and whatever extra care he needs.

"He's doing very well," Randy reports. "His attitude is very positive."

Rebecca concurs, adding that, when Jim feels up to it, he raises a lot of his own food on his plot in the farm's community garden.

Randy and Rebecca, along with Jim's friend Judith Boyd, coordinated the fund-raiser. Rebecca credits Jim with the successful turn-out. "He's a quiet guy," she says, "but he seems to know an awful lot of people."

Jim Sullivan is one of those Island fixtures that most year-rounders and many summer visitors recognize and greet in Island towns. Born in 1952 to a career army cryptographer and a housewife, he was raised in and around Lowell, Mass. Jim learned carpentry at Lowell Vocational Technical School and eventually began his own business, building custom homes in Southern New Hampshire and Boston. A 20-year marriage that began in 1973 produced two sons and ended in divorce.

Jim came to Martha's Vineyard for the first time in 1990 to visit friends. Like many who arrive here and stay, Jim knew at first glance that the Island was home. He moved here two years later.

For a while, Jim kept his off-Island job in Westford, Mass., working three long shifts per week at a printing firm, until 1995, when tourism suddenly made it impossible to depend on stand-by on the ferry. Since then, he's held positions as a carpenter at the Harbor View Hotel, caretaker for several summer homes, and all around extra hand at the late Anne Hopkins's farm. Most recently, he's been working at Native Earth and teaching Reiki, a form of touch therapy.

Now his Reiki students are helping to bolster his healing with frequent treatments. He credits that, and an herbal treatment called Essiac (a/k/a "Cassie's Tea") for his relative ease through chemo and radiation. "I was like the poster child for chemo," he recalls, "because I wasn't having the symptoms.

"I actually gained weight," he remembers. "I lost a lot of weight before I found out that I had cancer. That's kind of what led me to go (seek treatment). I gained weight. I kept my hair."

Like many cancer patients, Jim is philosophical about his disease. "Whenever you have a life-threatening illness, you learn how great life can be and what is important in life," he says. But, according to Jim, that's not much different for him than before he was ill. "I think I'd already come to that decision. That was part of moving here - what's really important. I could have stayed over there and made a lot more money staying in carpentry. I could have come over and gone into carpentry at the time and made a lot of money here."

Instead, Jim decided to opt for a peaceful, somewhat reclusive life, working on farms and caring for animals. He wanted to make just enough money to have time to enjoy life. "I ended up with what I wanted," he states. "This just reinforces it."

That is not to say that cancer hasn't changed his life. Outside of the obvious discomforts of healing from the surgery and the challenge of another bout with chemo, he'll have some physical limitations that he'll be adjusting to. And, he's discovered, "just how great my friends are. How supportive they really are."

When Jim comes out on the other side of his treatments, he is determined to be that support for others going through what he did. "The guy across the street gets the same kind of cancer, he's asking questions of the first person on the bus. I'll be steered that way. I'll be more involved with people with cancer one way or another."

Joyce Wagner is a frequent contributor to The Times. Her book, "Random Overthoughts," a collection of her humor columns from the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, is available at Island bookstores.