Thanks to her friends, Bradenton woman gets trip of a lifetime

Clockwise from far left, Julie Rothfeld, Trudi Diamant, Jane Trinci, Patty Virgilio, Jean Gurucharri and Patti Tibbetts take a break during one of their U.S. Route 66 planning sessions.
Clockwise from far left, Julie Rothfeld, Trudi Diamant, Jane Trinci, Patty Virgilio, Jean Gurucharri and Patti Tibbetts take a break during one of their U.S. Route 66 planning sessions. PROVIDED PHOTO

Bradenton’s Patty Virgilio is nicknamed “The Activity Director” by her friends because they say something fun invariably happens whenever they are around her.

They also call her “The Ball of Fun” and “The Center of Everything.”

When it comes to living life, Virgilio lives it in technicolor, her friends say.

Even her bouts with cancer have been epic.

The 54-year-old mother of three, who works for her family’s business, Callaghan Tire Co. in Bradenton, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, stage IV pancreatic cancer in 2012 and thyroid cancer in 2014.

Her breast and thyroid cancer in remission, Virgilio is still in treatment for pancreatic cancer. She has become a chemotherapy warrior at Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center.

She has had 40 rounds of chemotherapy over the past 36 months and is scheduled for her 41st round the week of July 18.

Virgilio, one of four daughters of Dan and Betty Callaghan, who opened the Bradenton tire business in 1978 and now have 10 locations throughout the state, is not sulking around home waiting for round 41.

Virgilio is embarking on a road trip from July 8-17 with five pals along historic U.S. Route 66, a trip Virgilio has always wanted to take.

“This trip has always been on my bucket list,” Virgilio said. “I thought about it and told everyone, ‘Let’s see America.’ Finally, my sister, Jane, got four of her friends to buy in and we are going. And I am not passing up a chicken-fried steak anywhere on Route 66.”

Virgilio and her pals will be the guests of honor at a public sendoff party at 6 p.m. Thursday at The Shake Pit, 3801 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.

Joining Virgilio on her trip of a lifetime are younger sister, Jane Trinci, and friends, Julie Rothfeld, who is keeping a blog of the trip; Trudi Diamant, trip navigator; Jean Gurucharri, a nurse and trip finance-director; and Patti Tibbetts, who has the role of “Trip Mom.”

Staying home are Virgilio’s husband, Guy; vice president of manufacturing for Callahan Tire; and Virgilio’s three children — Angela, 30, a doctor in Boca Raton; Julia, 28, a school teacher in Washington, D.C.; and Alex, 17, a rising senior at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal School in Bradenton.

“For years we have laughed about Patty’s fascination with Route 66,” Trinci said Tuesday. “She loves ‘Get Your Kicks On Route 66’ and people always pick up Route 66 things for her. We knew she wanted to do it, but we thought it would be the death of us. It seems like a horrible trip. But the more we talked about it, the more we thought it would be fun and that we wanted to do it.”

The women have named themselves “The Sixty-Sixtahs,” and they begin their 2,400-mile trip with a Friday flight from Tampa to Chicago where Route 66 begins.

The Sixtahs are renting a Suburban in Chicago they have already named “Sparky.” They even have business cards to give out along the way to invite people to follow them on their journey.

The women have created a blog called, “Don’t Forget Winona,” a tip of the hat to the song made popular by Nat King Cole called, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66.” The song goes, “Now you go through Saint Louie, Joplin, Missouri. And Oklahoma City is mighty pretty. You’ll see Amarillo, Gallup, New Mexico, Flagstaff, Arizona. Don’t forget Winona, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino.”

Their blog is dontforgetwinonablog.wordpress.com.

Manatee County can also follow the Sixtahs on Facebook at “Team Patty” and on Instagram and Twitter @sixchickson66.

The women also have had pink hats made that say “Sixty Sixtahs” and they plan to wear matching Route 66 clothes and backpacks.

“I am so excited for them,” said Virgilio’s mother, Betty. “I wish I could be a fly on the window of that Suburban.”

5 women who love Patty V.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize these five women love Patty Virgilio and wanted her to have this trip.

“We’ve mapped everything out based on Patty’s suggestions,” Diamant said.

“Patty wants to start the trip with breakfast on July 9 in Chicago at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant and Bakery, which is famous for giving out boxes of Milk Duds,” said Diamant, who works in the Child Support Division of the Manatee County Clerk of Court.

“Patty is inspiring,” Rothfeld said. “She’s never broken down around me. She never complains. She makes fun of it. She puts her situation in a fun way that you wish you were capable of, but would probably not be.”

“Patty is beautiful inside and out,” Tibbetts said. “The whole family is, from Dan and Betty down. They are giving, generous, hilarious. Patty should have been a stand-up comic. Her comic personality draws people toward her. If you are around Patty, you will laugh.”

Virgilio has found a way, perhaps it’s her Catholic faith, her personality or mindset, to cope with everything she has been through, to still find the ability to laugh.

A mammogram revealed breast cancer in 2008 and she had a mastectomy. During breast reconstruction, she contracted MRSA staphylococcus and needed 10 weeks of daily antibiotics to clear it up.

Four years later, she noticed a small pain in her stomach after she ate meals. Her doctor found a 2.7-centimeter tumor on her pancreas.

“The thing about pancreatic cancer is that only four to five percent of the patients who get it survive five years,” said Virgilio, who has survived three years and 10 months. “It’s usually diagnosed late, is inoperable and spreads.”

At first, surgeons told Virgilio her pancreatic cancer was inoperable.

She told the surgeon: “When do you want to see the pictures of my kids?”

That was all that was needed, she said.

“He kicked into gear,” Virgilio adds.

Chemotherapy and radiation shrank the tumor on Virgilio’s pancreas enough so the surgeon could take out the cancer along with a portion of her pancreas and spleen in March 2013.

“They were very happy,” Virgilio said. “They got everything out.”

Recovery was slow due to her body adjusting to the loss of the organs but Moffitt put Virgilio right into a six-month clinical drug trial for pancreatic cancer. During the trial, Virgilio’s “tumor markers” shot up, revealing activity somewhere else, Virgilio said.

She was placed back on ultrastrong chemotherapy and in November 2014 was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Her thyroid gland was then removed.

Since then, every other week on a Monday, Virgilio drives to Moffitt and sits there five or six hours in chemotherapy, then returns home with a bag of the chemo, which she administers to herself the next few days. Just when she is starting to feel better, it’s time to go back to Tampa for another dose.

Her last dose was Tuesday, so she will just be starting to feel better when the trip begins. Another dose awaits her return.

“Right now, I am going through hair loss and I have nose sores, which are no fun,” Virgilio said. “I have neuropathy in my hands and feet from the chemo, which feel like pins in my fingers and toes. My taste buds are shot. In the past, my taste buds have returned. But I don’t know now.”

“The good thing is that the chemo I am getting is still working,” Virgilio added. “I feel like I am in good hands at Moffitt. They are doing everything they can.”

Some ask why live this way? Virgilio said she wants to live anyway she can.

“My daughter, who is a doctor, said, ‘Mom, if you could be on chemo for a whole year and kill the cancer, wouldn’t it be worth it?’ I think it is. I have had breaks. Like 10 months with no chemo. That is amazing. To be able to enjoy life, my kids, my husband, and get back to being normal. But then it comes back and I am back in chemo.”

Virgilio says songs on the radio make her pause and appreciate she can still love her family and friends even on this massive dose of chemotherapy.

“I have a new appreciation for butterflies for some reason,” Virgilio said. “I feel they know they only have a couple of weeks and their lives are done. But yet they fly around filled with joy. I don’t know how long I have to fly around but I am not getting stressed out. I’ve got an appreciation for everything.”

The Wigwam Motel

The Route 66 trip includes 300 shared miles of driving per day through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

They will visit places such as Meramec Caverns in Sullivan, Mo.; the St. Louis Arch; tiny Chelsea, Okla.; Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas; Meteor Crater in Winslow, Ariz.; and the Grand Canyon.

They will stay in 1930s and 1940s lodgings such as Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz.

At trip’s end in Los Angeles, the five friends hope to score Virgilio a meeting with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and movie star Melissa McCarthy, two of her idols.

Virgilio’s friends have been sending DeGeneres postcards nearly every day requesting a meeting for Virgilio, but haven’t heard anything yet. The “Ellen DeGeneres Show” will not be taping when the women arrive, but they are still hoping for a miracle, Trinci said.

Virgilio wants to tell DeGeneres and McCarthy more attention must be paid toward pancreatic cancer research.

She also hopes to hug them both, dip her toes in the Pacific Ocean and then fly back to Florida with her group July 17. She has to be at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa in time for next round of chemotherapy.

“She’s a star,” Trinici said of her sister. “She can do anything. She was a great athlete when we were kids. We were on the same softball team when she was in fourth grade and I was in second and she had a batting average of .700 and mine was .063. I have always been happy in her shadow.”

Virgilio talked about what the trip means to her.

“It means the world to me to have friends who buy into this trip and want to see me happy,” Virgilio said. “I have survived three years and 10 months and I continue to battle it. I’m still walking. I’m getting up every morning. Sometimes the way I look at it is, ‘If I was hit by a car and killed and everything was over, I wouldn’t have the chance to tell friends and my family how much I love them. So I hug them and I tell them I love them. I think they get it.’ ”

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond

Itinerary for the ‘Sixtahs’ on U.S. Route 66

July 8: Tampa to Chicago on airplane.

July 9: Drive from Chicago to St. Louis, (St. Louis Arch, Chain of Rocks Bridge, Cozy Dog Drive-in)

July 10: Drive from St. Louis to Chelsea, Okla., (Meramec Caverns)

July 11: Chelsea to Amarillo, Texas, (OKC Milk Bottle Grocery, Rt. 66 Museum)

July 12: Amarillo to Gallup, N.M., (Cadillac Ranch, Tucumcari, N.M. Albuquerque, N.M.)

July 13: Gallup, N.M. to Holbrook, Ariz., (Wigwam Motel, Petrified Forest)

July 14: Holbrook, Ariz. to Tusayan, Arizz., (Winslow, Az., Meteor Crater, Winona, Grand Canyon)

July 15: Tusayan, Ariz. to Needles, Calif., (Old Road, Seligman, Ariz.)

July 16; Needles, Calif. to Santa Monica, Calif. (Mohave Desert, Toes in the Water, maybe Ellen Degeneres and Melissa McCarthy)

July 17: Los Angeles to Tampa flight.

Information from Sixtahs’ itinerary.