Dr. Mary Reid Gaudio had experienced many roles before facing what would be the most difficult one of her life: grieving her sister.
Once a musician and Hollywood actress, who played Red Sonja in the Universal Studios live action show, “The Adventures of Conan: A Sword and Sorcery Spectacular,” Mary also played the role of wife and professor before her sister Ann was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, four and a half years ago.
At first, Mary and her family couldn’t believe it. ALL is a type of leukemia that generally attacks young children, and Ann was in her 60s. Because it was so rare for adults to contract ALL, the family didn’t know if Ann would survive. For the first few months, Mary’s family was in shock.
Over Ann’s four-year battle with cancer and eventual recovery, she and her family went through a vast array of emotions, from devastation, to fear, and eventually, hope.
Today, Ann is cancer-free. Her sister Mary has memorialized the heart-wrenching struggle in her new book, The Phone Rang.
In the book, Mary seeks to outline not only the pain that Ann and her family went through, but also the importance of maintaining hope and support for those you love.
Below, Mary shares her insight on the book, her sister’s journey, and living in LA.
How much of a role do you think being surrounded by love and family played in Ann’s recovery from cancer?
I believe that Ann is recovering so well because she didn’t have to worry. We all jumped in and took over. My younger sister, Chee, lives near Ann in Batavia, NY; and I’m 3000 miles away in Los Angeles. At first, I didn’t know what to do: go home to help, or stay and keep working. Chee and I would talk on the phone every day, sometimes several times a day, and we would assess the situation. We were each other’s support system. Chee was there to take Ann to the hospital, to the doctors, and coordinate the family so we could take turns being the caregivers. Ann’s son and daughter-in-law also flew to NY from Los Angeles to help after her bone-marrow transplant. She needed 24/7 care for 90 days straight. This was critical because they took her to the brink of death and killed all her bone marrow so they could replace it with brand new marrow. Chee and I were not a perfect match, so that threw us for a loop. But they found a match in the donor bank. Ann was so fortunate because without this, she probably would not have survived. Even if they killed the leukemia, it returns if the bone marrow transplant isn’t successful. So the whole family surrounded her with time and attention and lived with Ann at Hope Lodge during her recovery. I believe it was a key point in her recovery. At the same time, our mother was in the last stages of her life, and our brother, Paul, was making sure mom wouldn’t get in the car and drive away. Mom kept saying she wanted to go home, even though she was home. She’d sit in the car and honk the horn, so Paul hid the keys. I wrote the book The Phone Rang not only to document our lives at the time we discovered Ann had leukemia, and to share the roller coaster ride the family went through, but also to celebrate Ann’s life and give her hope to carry on. Her life as an actress and composer is really fascinating, so I thought it would light up her life to get her to reminisce.
What advice would you give someone whose family member has recently been diagnosed but may not be living close by that relative?
My advice is to plan trips, plan celebrations, and communicate in any way possible. If that means to talk on the phone, write emails, write snail-mail letters, send flowers, send cards, or write a book, do it! Let your loved one know that you care. If you don’t do it now, you could miss your time and regret it. Say “I love you” in as many creative ways as you can. We always think there’s time, but suddenly it can suddenly slip away without our having done the things we planned to do or say to a loved one. My family is constantly planning parties, trips and celebrations, so Ann has something to look forward to in her recovery. Any excuse to celebrate is a good excuse. Ann is in her fourth year of remission; she was diagnosed in 2012. So our plan is working so far. Ann also has a timeshare, so our next big trip is for our niece’s graduation from high school in 2018. We’re going to Tuscany and Ann and I will book the location this January. We’re looking at an 11-bedroom villa and we’ll invite all friends and family who are interested. Then we’ll have fun planning the details for the next year.
What was the biggest lesson you took away from all of this?
I think the biggest lesson for me is that life is a rollercoaster ride with extreme highs and extreme lows, and we have to learn how to gracefully manage those extremes without falling off the ride. I’ve learned to find balance in my life. And I choose happiness. My family is the most important aspect of my life and they give me balance and happiness. My husband, Gino, my son, Rick, and his family, Marla, Evan and Juliet, and my siblings, are everything to me. Life is too short to waste time with people who waste your time.
Did your sister’s health condition affect the way you take care of yourself (did you change your eating or fitness habits)?
Chee and I dismissed the fact that Ann had leukemia at first and thought the diagnosis was wrong because it didn’t run in our family. The doctors said it’s the luck of the draw. That was a shock. I make sure I eat a good breakfast now. I didn’t take the time in the past, but now I sit down with my husband every morning and we have 4 oz. of Greek yogurt with berries, almonds, sunflower seeds, chia seeds and flax seeds. It’s delicious! We also have green tea with almond milk and a couple drops of stevia. I eat lots of salads and vegetables and very little meat. I make a great red sauce with tomatoes, olive oil and garlic and a little pasta along with a nice pinot noir. And I have to work out. It’s in my DNA. I’ve always been active so that hasn’t changed much.
weSPARK was an instrumental part of Ann’s recovery. Can you tell us about that?
I live around the corner from weSPARK and several of my friends had gone there for help in their recovery from cancer. Once I found out about Ann’s leukemia, I made an appointment for her. Ann was reluctant to go, so Gino and I signed up to get services as caregivers and participate with her. Ann thought she could manage on her own but soon found out that sharing her issues with those who were going through similar situations was very rewarding and healthy. She loves her reflexology and Tai Chi classes. She has neuropathy in her feet, so this gives her great relief. She also has group sessions with a therapist. This takes some of the load off the family members who don’t understand all of the problems, fears and insecurities those with cancer go through. Ann is discovering her “New Normal” and trying to figure out her new way of living. weSPARK is like your home, in a comfortable setting, and all of their services are free because of the great people who value this wonderful cancer support group. Wendy Jo Sperber started this organization because she was suffering from cancer. She did not survive, but her legacy lives on. Tom Hanks worked with her in “Bosom Buddies” and he’s on the Board of Directors along with Steven Spielberg. We participate in the 5K each year, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of my book is going to weSPARK as well.
You’ve lived in LA for some time now. What are some of your favorite outdoor spots (hikes, walks, activities) here?
I used to be a gym rat but I’ve changed up my routine now. I love to swim and do my 20 laps in my pool every day. I also used to be a (snow) ski instructor, but now I just ski. Besides Mammoth, Mountain High and Bear Mountain, I love to ski at Holiday Valley in Ellicottville, NY where we have our family farm. When we get a chance, my husband and I love paddle boarding and we go to Marina del Rey and rent boards. I also bike on the boardwalk in Santa Monica. In the fall and spring, we like to hike in the hills of Sherman Oaks and Fryman Canyon near Laurel Canyon. Another part of my life is playing viola. I was a music major and viola minor for my BA, and I still play in Valley Symphony Orchestra at Valley College – and I have a quartet called Chrysanthemum Quartet; we play for weddings, parties and just for fun!
Favorite restaurants in the city?
We regularly go to Maria’s Kitchen and The Boneyard in Sherman Oaks, if neither one of us wants to cook (we can walk there). We also go to Il Fornaio in Beverly Hills regularly. For our anniversary and birthdays we go to the Hotel Bel Air. Urth Café for chai tea, La Scala’s chopped salad, Chin Chin’s Chinese chicken salad for sure. I still love The Ivy, and Dolce Isola is near my work so I go there for lunch.
Tell us a bit about your days playing Red Sonja in the Conan live show at Universal.
That was the most incredible job in the world. We had such a blast working together. I took fencing in college so I was a natural swords woman. I fought the warriors and slayed the dragon for seven years. I worked with some very charming barbarians, but won the war every day! This was my gym rat era. I worked out before each show and there were seven shows a day. I had a workout bench where I did 100 sit ups, 3 sets of 20 bicep curls, lateral lifts, bicep extensions, single arm kickbacks, flat dumbbell bench press, leg lifts, and squats. My entrance was climbing down a 30-foot rope, so I had to warm up before each show. Then I would work out in the gym 3-4 times a week, especially on my days off.
The guys would always fill up on carbs after each show. They would say, “Come on Reid, let’s go eat.” I did not do that, for obvious reasons! At the time, I drank coffee. So that’s how I re-energized. I did eat healthy then as I do now. I was not a body builder. I looked at my character, Red Sonja, as being lithe, quick, smart, vicious and unpredictable. That’s how I slayed the warriors. Afterward, we would wander around the park in costume and take photos with the guests. How bad can that be? That was my home base job. From here, I could audition and work in other movies and television shows, which I did. I was in “Clan of the Cave Bear” with Daryl Hannah, “Amazon Women on the Moon,” “Hardcastle and McCormick,” “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” etc. I had a great time. I have a great life!