Kimbalee Gentle’s 13-year-old daughter, Kayla, has been putting away $5 and $10 weekly gifts from her beloved uncle Rion ever since Kimbalee was diagnosed with breast cancer last June. She has $200 saved up and recently asked her mother what she’d like for Christmas.
“I said, ‘Baby, I don’t want anything. All I want is you guys and I want to be alive and that’s it,’’’ Gentle, 31, said, sitting in her parents’ Lauderhill home, where she is now living with her three young children while she undergoes chemotherapy.
Gentle had worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken for 13 years, since she became an 18-year-old mother and had to drop out of Boyd Anderson High School during her senior year. She was a good student with big dreams, and she deeply regrets getting pregnant so young and disappointing her parents, Sherna and Desmond.
She worked at a retirement home through her pregnancy, got the job at KFC, and worked her way up. She briefly took classes at Kaiser College to become an occupational therapist but couldn’t afford to live without a paycheck, so she returned to KFC full time. Most recently, she was a shift supervisor at the Davie location. An admitted workaholic, she always asked for extra hours beyond her scheduled 40 and often wound up working 50 hours per week.
Although it meant time away from her children in the afternoons and evenings, Gentle did it to remain independent. She made just enough to pay rent and take care of most of her family’s needs. But her life took an unexpected turn last spring, when she felt a lump in her left breast. She was diagnosed with cancer and endometriosis on June 1, and she didn’t have medical insurance.
“I was so stressed out because I had to come up with the money to pay for the tests, the oncologist, the mastectomy, the chemo,’’ Gentle said. “I’m a single mom, work paycheck-to-paycheck to take care of the kids. I don’t have extra money for these expenses.’’
She says she had been dropped from Obamacare for missing a few payments and had trouble getting re-enrolled.
“I came up with $100 and went to my Mom’s doctor, and when they told me I needed a biopsy and it costs $4,000, I’m saying to myself, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to get this $4,000?’ I called the hospital, told them I don’t have the money, and asked if I can do payments.’’
Gentle qualified for Broward Health’s MOPED program (Medical Options Patient Eligibility Department), and got the financial help she needed to cover her medical expenses. She had a mastectomy on Sept. 21, including the removal of 13 lymph nodes, and began chemo treatments in October.
She worked until the day before her surgery, and saved four and a half paychecks. The chemo treatments leave her nauseous and extremely fatigued, so she has been unable to return to work. She packed up her belongings and her three daughters — Kayla, Kimmiah, 6, and Kimmora, 3 — and moved in with her parents.
“I have $148 left,’’ she said. “I had nowhere else to go. I am so thankful that my family is always there for me.’’
Her father is a long-haul truck driver, so he isn’t home much, but when he is, he dotes on his second-eldest daughter (there are five siblings). Her mother has accompanied Gentle to every doctor appointment and chemo treatment. She sponge-bathed Gentle after the surgery and drives the kids everywhere they need to be.
“I was like her baby all over again,’’ Gentle said as her mother, sitting across the dining room table, wiped tears from her eyes.
Gentle is especially appreciative of her brother Rion, “my rock, and my best friend,’’ and his wife, Jamie. Rion, a Lauderhill truck driver with the waste management department, stops by the family home every night after work to visit with his sister. He gives candy and small gifts to her kids, and every week gives her some money from his paycheck.
Gentle sobbed only once during her interview with the Herald. It was when she was discussing her relationship with her brother. Gentle explained that she was “not a girlie-girl’’ when they were growing up in Jamaica, so she spent countless hours with Rion, catching fish, climbing trees, picking mangos, throwing stones into rivers, and climbing rocks in bare feet.
“Rion has always been by my side, my best friend in the world,’’ said Gentle, who moved to South Floirida when she was 13. “The day he found out I had cancer …’’ She paused. Buried her face in her hands, and cried. She could not complete the sentence.
Her older sister, Charmaine, has also been by her side. Four years older than Kimbalee, Charmaine said she looks up to her younger sister. “She’s one of my heroes,’’ Charmaine said. “There has always been something about her that makes her special. She connects everyone in our family, and always has, even before the cancer. She has that Je ne sais quoi.’’
When Kimbalee is down, she checks in with her Facebook breast cancer support group. She opens her Bible to Psalm 23. “When I read ‘The Lord is my Shepherd’, that helps calm me down and keep me grounded,’’ Gentle said. She also listens to and sings along with The Fight Song by Rachel Platten.
“This is my fight song/ Take back my life song/ Prove I’m alright song/ My power’s turned on. Starting right now I’ll be strong/ I’ll play my fight song/ And I don’t really care if nobody else believes/ Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.’’
Gentle has a remarkably cheery disposition, despite her medical and financial troubles. Her smile shines brighter than the Christmas tree in the corner of their living room.
“But sometimes I have my emotional days, especially when my hair started falling out,’’ she said. “I was in the shower and I’m washing my hair and everything just starts falling out and I got so emotional that day.’’
Her children boost her spirits.
“Mommy, you look more beautiful without your hair,’’ said Kimmiah, who was born prematurely and has learning disabilities.
Gentle doesn’t have any money to buy Christmas gifts for her children. Her Wish Book list includes bunk beds so the children don’t have to sleep with her anymore, educational toys for her 6-year-old, a karaoke machine for her 3-year-old who loves to sing, and a hoverboard or Beat headphones for her 13-year-old.
Gentle said cancer has forced her to examine her life, and inspired her to make positive changes. She registered at Broward Community College and plans to take nursing classes with hopes of working with cancer patients.
“I was working, working, working all those years at KFC but not really going anywhere,’’ she said. “Now, I want to be an oncology nurse. I see the nurses who work with me, and they’re so nice. They don’t make you feel like you’re sick. They make you feel welcome. I want to work in that field so I can help others going through what I’m going through.’’
She said that since her diagnosis, she has become a stronger, more patient and compassionate person. She also said she’s a better mother, as she can spend more time with her daughters.
“I don’t take this as a sickness,’’ she said, smiling. “Everything happens for a reason. This makes me want to better myself, get more situated, get a better job, go back to school. This is going to make me a better woman. A better woman. Yes.’’
How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via your mobile phone, text WISH to 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook @MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook