Cynthia VanHorn Avoids growing too close with her patients. She’s a registered nurse working in the oncology unit, so she sees some people at their lowest moments. If cancer itself isn’t exhausting the patients, it’s the treatments. She says some patients stop enjoying their lives — they stop traveling, they stop working and they stop socializing.
Not Sharon Wise. The hospital paired her and VanHorn together for Sharon’s first infusion in November 2021, where VanHorn quickly realized she’d grow close with Sharon.
“You really have to balance yourself — you have to avoid getting connected on this level with a lot of your patients or else you’ll get burnt out,” VanHorn says.
“There are still a few patients that draw you in, and Sharon is one of those,” she adds. “There’s something about her — she’s real sparky and has a zest for life. She has a zest for taking things as they come.”
When Sharon attends a work conference for her son’s company, GrassRoots Turf, she takes pictures and brings them back to show VanHorn. Sharon’s been known to hand out money to nurses who know anyone who’s down on their luck, asking them, “Do you know anyone else who needs blessed yet?”
She’s even found a way to turn chemotherapy treatment into a running joke: Her drug is now an orangish-red color, and she recently texted her friend, “I’m finally getting some Tennessee orange in me.” As a big Georgia Bulldogs fan, Sharon jokingly expressed some apprehension about the drug that’s colored like her rival school’s, but VanHorn recalls hearing Sharon say, “If it’s Tennessee orange that gives me more time, so be it.”
“If I could design a perfect patient, it’s Sharon,” VanHorn says. “Do what you need to do to take care of yourself, but go live your life. Don’t be stuck in just trying to stay alive.”
Sharon has continued to work at GrassRoots through her cancer diagnosis, too. Over the last six years, she’s helped her son, Josh, change the company. Because of her efforts, GrassRoots is nearly debt free and has refocused itself on select services. Josh says Sharon — who’s now the team’s chief financial officer — has gone above and beyond for the company.
“She sees her position as her mission and her calling,” Josh says, “not to pay bills and balance accounts, but to love, guide and advise employees as family.
A grassroots effort
Sharon remembers Josh mowing lawns with his father, Bob, when he was just 14. When he got older, she recalls Josh enjoying working in sales at a landscaping company but feeling like things could be run more effectively. When he was 21, the landscaping company was sold, and the new employers told him he’d sign a noncompete or he’d lose his job.
Josh didn’t sign the deal. He started his own company, which now runs at $7.2 million in annual revenue and 28 employees. But the early goings were not always easy: Sharon remembers seeing her son swamped by big-picture management, day-to-day operations and the financials.
She’s got a background in accounting and finance, so Sharon offered to come in one day a week to help her son pay bills. One day turned into two, then three. Eventually, it was almost daily phone calls or days in the office. Sharon sold off her company that did insurance annuities and joined the team full time.
“I knew that he needed the help, and the more I helped, the more I enjoyed it,” Sharon says. “I basically became a partner with him.”
The changes were made quickly: Sharon devised a five-year plan to get GrassRoots out of debt while upgrading their fleet of trucks to newer models. They also implemented new employee benefits like a 401k plan and life insurance.
But there were two other major decisions Sharon helped settle: For one, the company’s growth meant they either needed to open more branches or franchise GrassRoots. They ultimately decided on franchising, which Sharon says was the right call.
“(Josh) cares about people. He wants people to be successful,” Sharon says. “The franchisees are like partners. They’re like brothers with Josh. He’s on the phone with at least one of them all the time.”
The team also had to make some difficult decisions with managers and departments that, for varying reasons, didn’t make GrassRoots more profitable or productive. Josh says he and Sharon analyzed the company’s divisions and found that while the spray unit made sense to keep aboard, lawn maintenance and pest control didn’t.
But Josh didn’t sell off those divisions to other companies. Chris McCrory is the team’s franchise field coach and has been with GrassRoots for nine years. He and Josh say GrassRoots allowed the managers of those divisions to split with the company and create their own businesses.
Some are still operating, while some aren’t. What’s important to McCrory is that he saw compassion from his company’s leadership. Sure, the team shed some divisions as a byproduct of improving profit margins, but he remembers how excited those managers were to ship off and start their own companies. What’s more, Josh didn’t charge them any additional money to maintain the clients they already had under the GrassRoots name. He also sold them equipment at really good prices, McCrory says.
“(They) had a heart, Sharon and Josh. They didn’t want to just throw them to the curb,” McCrory says. “I mean, who does that? Who gives somebody 100 customers for nothing?”
The hospital still operated under strict COVID-19 visitation rules when Josh and his two siblings were called in November 2021. Under most circumstances, they only allowed one visitor at a time. But now doctors told the Wise family they could come in all together. Josh knew then there was going to be some bad news.
Just days prior on Halloween, Sharon had three liters of fluid drawn from her chest, but she figured it was largely due to her then-recent bout with COVID. However, doctors confirmed that it was instead peritoneal carcinomatosis - Stage 4A. Though Sharon warns anyone not to search that term on the internet, she had to break the news to her children.
“Of course, we’re all in there crying,” Josh says, “and she looked at us and said, ‘You guys all have each other. Your father and I won’t always be here for you.’”
Sharon began treatment that same month, and after a full invasive surgery in March, a PET scan revealed she was cancer-free at the time. She still took a cancer pill daily, but that spring, she was still able to attend her grandchild’s graduation from high school.
Within six weeks though, Sharon’s tumor marker numbers grew, and another PET scan revealed the cancer was back and aggressive. Her current cancer treatment plans will carry through to February where another PET scan will determine the status of the cancer.
Even still, Josh says Sharon is still living her life. She was able to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary as planned this September in the Florida Keys. She recently went through Dollywood in Tennessee with her family. And a day after a recent chemo treatment, she was back out at the outlet malls shopping for Christmas gifts.
Plus, Josh says Sharon’s still treating GrassRoots as though it’s business as usual. She’s still working in the office daily and hasn’t missed a single payroll for the team. There was one day she was too sick from treatments to come into the office, but even then, she managed to call Josh and guide him through the process while she was bedridden.
“You would never know she’s battling cancer,” Josh says.
Beyond that, Sharon says there’s been no limitations. And she adds that the employees don’t treat her much differently than before — she’s still the “office mother” she had been since she joined GrassRoots. Sometimes, Sharon jokes that she’s had technicians come by to apologize for letting a swear word slip nearby, but that’s always been the case. Things are still humming along at GrassRoots, and Sharon’s still helping to steer the ship.
“At first, it probably was tip-toey: Do we talk about it, do we not talk about it? A lot of people get an illness, and they don’t want to talk about it,” Sharon says. “I’d come in and say I feel good about it. I think my coming in and being as diligent as I have been lets them all know that life goes on. You control your attitude.”
At a recent conference, a young woman noticed Sharon’s hat and approached her to say that her mom had recently passed away with cancer. Her mother had received her diagnosis, went straight to the couch and never got up to enjoy life again.
“She said, ‘I just wish she would’ve had your attitude,’” Sharon says. “When I feel good, I just go do things.”
Led by faith
Sharon also attributes this mentality to her faith, which has become the backbone of everything at GrassRoots.
Decades ago, Sharon stood up from the back pew at the small Sylvester Baptist Church in Atlanta. She approached the pastor up front to tell him she wanted to accept Jesus. Sharon remembers being surprised to see her mom sitting in the front row.
“I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ Sharon recalls. “And she said, ‘I knew you were coming down here.”
Though Sharon grew up in public schools, she found herself working at Dominion Christian Schools from 1997 to 2010, which grew her faith as she raised three children. All these years later, Sharon’s spiritual influence is prominent at GrassRoots. Josh says he used to really keep politics and religion outside the workplace, but Sharon has helped bring out the company’s faith-based mentality. She opens up each meeting with a prayer, and the company painted the words in Proverbs 22:1 up on the wall above the team’s kitchen area.
“It’s a joke at times — sometimes, this place is more of a church than a workplace,” Josh says.
Josh adds that the way his mother has handled her journey with cancer is an inspiration to others in the office. It’s a testimony to what strong faith and the right mindset can do for a person. He remembers an employee coming to her office and later, Josh saw on security cameras his mother embracing the employee and crying with her. She was going through hardships and Sharon was there to help.
“My mom had given her some cash out of her own pocket. She gave her some motherly advice,” Josh says. “She’s always praying for all of us.”
Sharon has also helped create a fund at the company for employees when they hit hard times. Josh says one family had a son that had third-degree burns after a tragic accident. Another slipped and fell in a bathroom and broke her ribs.
“Seeing a need to assist them, Sharon began a fund that would be available to help our GrassRoots family,” Josh says.
McCrory says Sharon and Josh have fostered a culture for helping at GrassRoots. One day before Thanksgiving break, an employee got in a huge wreck. The other driver, who caused the accident, had no insurance and drove away. The employee was going to miss six months of time to recover. Everyone in the office donated PTO, and Sharon donated some money.
“They definitely care for all their employees. You definitely don’t feel like just an employee and they’re a manager-owner,” McCrory says. “She really gets involved with the employees on a personal level. It’s more than just, ‘I’m an owner and here’s your paycheck.’ She’ll advance salaries all the time to help make ends meet.”
A hopeful outlook
Josh admits that he dreams for a day where his mother will be cancer-free, but he and Sharon both know her days on earth might be numbered. Despite that, he admires how her story has already influenced those around her.
“I hope it touches a lot of lives. I hope people realize the stupid little stuff we let get in our way, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter,” Josh says. “I do know everything happens for a reason. At the end of the day, I’ve already seen so many people touched by her story.”
VanHorn, the nurse who’s still helping watch over Sharon’s treatments, is among those people.
“That’s who Sharon is,” VanHorn says. “She definitely created a legacy that’s going to live on.”
Others are stepping in to bat for Sharon, too. McCrory’s wife, Mary Ann, works at Northside Cherokee Hospital, and she was able to help get extra visitors to be able to stay the night with Sharon during COVID. In an all-too-familiar story, Sharon was able to create a bond with Mary Ann that’s still going. She visited multiple times to make sure Sharon always had enough pillows, ice, blankets and water during her hospital stays.
“This is what made Sharon feel like she had someone there for her when she needed somebody,” McCrory says. “That was really cool.”
Sharon says she’s thankful for everyone who has prayed for her and looked out for her since her diagnosis. She’s even thankful for her health, as she still hasn’t vomited from chemo, and she says she’s had “more good days than bad.”
“We all have control of only one thing — our attitude,” Sharon says. “(How do) we react to any given situation? I choose joy.”
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