As Joanna Gillette lay fighting for her life in the 4R wing of Providence Hospital in Portland, her mind wasn't on the incurable liver cancer that was overwhelming her body.
She wasn't thinking of the bluish scars on her stomach, where doctors had removed her gallbladder, half her liver, and the fibrous tumors that caused her heart to flutter.
Or the many blood transfusions that had buoyed her strength.
Instead, she clutched the phone and asked that the Lord bless a church mission to Ensenada, Mexico. At Philadelphia Church in Hammond, someone held a microphone to the receiver so the entire congregation could hear Gillette pray over the mission team members, many of whom Gillette had worked with on previous trips to the poverty-stricken area.
Even while suffering immense pain, Gillette put others first, rooting herself in her faith in God and His unending love.
At the age of 20, Joanna "Jo" Christine Gillette died July 6. Doctors still don't know why or how she contracted fibrolamellar variant hepatocellular carcinoma, a little-known and rare cancer found in young women.
Almost twinsGillette was born to William and Dianne Gillette Feb. 17, 1984. She attended school in Fairbanks, Alaska, until she was 12. Her father died of a heart attack when she was 11, and after his death and her mother's remarriage, she moved with her new family to Texas, then again to Astoria in 1998. She graduated from Astoria High School in 2002, and attended Clatsop Community College. The following year she attended Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash.
An irresistable photo of Joanna Gillette at age 6. Joanna had a lot of compassion for people, says her mother, Dianne Forte. She would never let me say anything bad about anybody. She would stick up for the underdog.Growing up, one of her best friends was her sister, Heather Gillette. Just 14 months apart, the girls shared everything from clothes to friends.
"We were really twins more than sisters," Heather Gillette said. "Whenever we'd get presents, mine was pink, hers was purple."
Gillette was always the quieter one, the sister who took over as "mom" when the parents were out, and the one least likely to get in trouble. She was an "innocent" who wasn't versed in the world beyond church and school.
"I'll tell you when you're older," the younger sister often said.
But what Gillette lacked in knowledge she made up for with her gentleness and kindness. She spent time and energy earning money for mission trips. In Mexico, she ministered to the poorest of the poor - children who were dirty, barefoot and hungry. She would sit patiently with them while they chattered in Spanish even though she couldn't understand a word.
"She would just love to hug and hold little kids that were hurting," said her pastor, Chris Schauermann. "It wasn't uncommon for kids to break down and bawl."
With friendsDuring the summer of 2003 Gillette worked at the Cannon Beach Conference Center doing laundry and kitchen duty with Katelin Benedict, Joanna Gillette went on numerous mission trips. She is pictured here with some of the Mexican children to whom she ministered.who became a close friend. Together the girls would jet to Pizza A' Fetta when they got the late-night munchies and ask for the restaurant's extras. Sometimes there would be a whole pizza someone had not picked up, or one the cooks burned and couldn't sell. The nights they didn't have curfew, they would make runs to Krispy Kreme and 24-joints, go to the coast and Hillsboro in her Mercury.
That car, a 1986 gray Topaz, was outfitted with a blue furry wheel cover, smiley faces, and assorted bumper stickers like "Hoofarted" and "In case of the rapture, this car unmanned." When the muffler fell off, Gillette just got out of the car and put it in the trunk. She never had it fixed.
"It was a pretty tacky car, but it got us places," Benedict said.
While others might find the car a little embarrassing, Gillette didn't take herself too seriously. She had a sense of humor that would sneak out with her closest friends. Gillette once dumped a jug of cold water on Benedict's head while she was showering. Soon after, Gillette found herself duct taped in a bathroom stall.
"It was intense, we didn't know who would be pranking who next," Benedict said.
Her friend and roommate Eirin Meyer remembers the time Gillette bleached her hair. It turned out terribly, so she decided to cover it up by dyeing her hair red. After spending an evening with a hoodie on all night, Gillette spoke up.
"You guys, I want to show you my hair, but it looks kind of drastic. Promise you won't laugh at me?" she said.
She let her hair fall from its covering and everyone burst into giggles, Gillette included. She had stopped under a red neon light and it looked like her hair was on fire.
Friend Tenisha Stock remembers how Gillette loved to take a canoe out in the estuary to catch crab. Sometimes Stock's brother would sway the boat and everyone would fall in, but Gillette just laughed. She loved the ocean, and wanted to live in a house by the sea.
She was obsessed with fish, and would go to the pet store every week to buy new plants and baby fish for her 30-gallon tank, Heather Gillette said. She adored her cat and dog, Elijah Wood from "Lord of the Rings," and praise music. She had a laugh that started from her toenails and escaped through a beautiful smile.
Getting sickThe diagnosis of Gillette's illness came as sharp and fast as a knife. While she had lived in silent pain for years, Gillette thought the aches were normal. One weekend in early 2004, Joanna Gillette graduated from Astoria High School in June 2002. She hoped to earn a small business degree.Gillette came home from school to do laundry and mentioned that she wasn't feeling well. Her mother and stepfather, Mick Forte, thought she had the flu, but instead of being able to fight it off, Gillette got worse. She went to the doctor, and Feb. 28 she was diagnosed with cancer. From that point on, she rarely left the hospital.
Friends and relatives came to visit, and her mom slept for months in the hard chair next to her bed. While visitors found Gillette weakened, the devastating news didn't shake her spirit. She prayed for other patients in the hospital. She prayed for her sister, who was traveling back and forth from Oregon State University. Her faith and kindness captured the hearts of her nurses on 4R (medical surgery). When Gillette was accidentally put on a different floor, the nurses stole her back in a wheelchair; they wanted her "home."
As Gillette faded, her parents believe she saw glimpses of heaven. When Gillette labored for breath one night her mom heard her say, "It's so beautiful."
"What is?" her mom asked, her heart aching with the fear that this was the moment she would lose her daughter.
"My room, it's so beautiful," Gillette said. Then she added, "Oh, they shut the door."
She turned to her mom and told her to go back to sleep, that she wasn't going tonight.
A week later, Gillette passed away.
Seeds on earthMore than 200 people attended her memorial, a testament, to the many people she affected with her compassionate hear, her friends said.
In a card sent to her family by one of her nurses, they found a package of forget-me-nots. "Joanna, you have touched so many lives in such a beautiful way, as an angel sent from God," Roger Fortier wrote. "I carry you with me, each and every day of my journey and will continue to plant your seeds everywhere I go in honor and memory of your beauty."
While Gillette's friends and family know she is in heaven today, here on earth she lives on in the memories of the people she loved, and in the blue flowers spread along Oregon's paths, roadways and beaches.
"You don't always know what you're supposed to do in life," she told her mom before she died. "I feel like I should tell you, you're just supposed to work for the Lord."