A Thousand Cranes

Loggers who’ve taken part in the PacRim program over the years will remember Elisabeth Benard and her husband, Nima Dorjee. Benard was director of the Pacific Rim/Asia Study-Travel Program from 1995 to 2015. When Dorjee was diagnosed with cancer last year, a number of PacRim alumni got together to bring him cheer. Benard wrote to us with this story:

Elisabeth Benard and friends with her cranesIn early June in the emergency room at 5 a.m., I was told that my husband had lung cancer. This began the worst summer of our 40 years of marriage.

Both Nima and I were involved with seven PacRim programs, which occurred every three years beginning in 1996–97. We regard the students, known as PacRimmers, as our children. For some, Nima is like a grandfather to them.

During the pandemic in 2020, some of the PacRimmers held Zoom minireunions. It was during one such reunion—with the PacRimmers of 2011–12—that a student asked me how I was, and I broke down. Through my tears, I told them that Nima had lung cancer and the prognosis was bleak. Within a few days, a clarion call circulated amongst all seven groups—the PacRimmers wanted to help. I told them that Nima likes photos and cards with personal messages. The mailman soon knew that something was going on, since he was suddenly delivering many letters to Nima. We received beautiful cards with heartwarming wishes and thanks for the continued effect that PacRim had had on the students’ lives. Even some parents sent us cards. Each was a gift of joy during a bleak summer of despair. Some groups made photo albums, and some who live in the Tacoma area came to visit us in the garden. All of this gave us comfort in a difficult year of minimal social contact. Both of us love to give and receive hugs.

The PacRimmers of 2002–03 collected some funds to buy flowers (my favorite) and snacks (Nima’s favorite). I thought that it was a one-time gift, but the flowers and snacks appeared every week. I pleaded with them to stop spending their money during this year of financial difficulties. They said they were happy to give back for the wonderful times that they had on PacRim. The flowers and snacks are still coming every week. Merci beaucoup.

In September, everything changed. It was determined that Nima has a special gene mutation known as EGFR. The oncologist declared, “This is the best news that I can give you.” For this mutation, the very effective drug, Tagrisso, can arrest the spread and shrink the nodules. For the past three months, Nima’s health has been improving and the prognosis is very good.

Later in September, Megan Baunsgard ’15 and Gianna Olson ’16 surprised us with a gift. Unbeknownst to us, the group of 2014–15 had brainstormed. Aurelia Wieber ’16 suggested making a thousand origami cranes—known as a senbazuru. It is a Japanese tradition to create them for someone who is seriously ill and to wish for their recovery. All seven PacRim groups participated in making them. Some made as many as 200, which required days of work. Some made them with their children or spouses and told them stories of their PacRim adventures. Some wrote messages of love and light on the cranes. Their wishes of healing and hope reverberated in our bodies. I was filled with joy. Thank you, dear PacRimmers.

--Elisabeth Benard