Photography: Brandi Stage Portraiture
Makeup: Bria Fowler, Elle Louise LLC
When you’re entering the fight of your life, a pretty, plush unicorn may not be everyone’s idea of a combat companion.
But for Susie Davis, the stuffed animal — whom she named Faith — symbolized her nearest and dearest.
The “Unicorn Posse,” as she dubbed her female inner circle, would be kept updated on every aspect of her upcoming battle via texts and videos. On Aug. 10, Davis introduced the group to Faith via text, donning a characteristically bright smile that belied the many obstacles and uncertainties that lay ahead.
“I want to thank all of you in advance for the love and support that so many have already given my family over the years and now for what WE embark on together,” Davis wrote in an update on caringbridge.org. “I say ‘we’ because I know I have an amazing village. Whether it be within my blood family or the ones who over decades have become my selected family, each person in my life is there for a reason and placed by God.”
At the time, the mother of two and Biloxi resident was grappling with many unanswered questions regarding the rare head tumor — called a meningioma — that doctors had discovered on her cerebral wall. Removing the invasive mass, measuring 6.4-by-2.5-by-5.8 centimeters, would involve skull reconstruction and infiltration of the dura — a protective layer around the brain.
Many close to the 48-year-old had admired her boundless energy and marveled at how she balanced her many responsibilities, from motherhood to career to numerous community roles. Suddenly, she’d landed in an unfamiliar position: vulnerable.
Nonetheless, she found comfort by placing her trust in a higher power.
“I walked into this knowing that there was a plan that God had, a healing process that I was already working on,” Davis says. “I had already asked and prayed for him to heal me from the inside out.”
‘SOMETHING WASN’T RIGHT’
The first troubling signs were subtle — some twitching in her right eye and periodic pressure headaches. A knot had developed near her temple over the past couple of years, and Davis was referred for an MRI when an ultrasound came back inconclusive. Having been re-diagnosed with skin cancer on her forehead in May, the test would check both areas.
Initially, she attributed the symptoms to aging, weather fluctuation, stress or sinus issues. Hard-charging women like Davis, whom so many others depend on, don’t often indulge in the luxury of worrying about themselves.
“I saw (the signs). I noticed them. But I think in my mind, I was a little bit more passive,” she says. “As they continued to happen, I knew something wasn’t right.”
A call from her primary care doctor, who wanted to see her right away after the MRI, confirmed that uneasy feeling. CT scans were ordered, and a picture began to form of a large, complicated growth that would test the skills of even the best physicians.
As a radiology practice manager at the time, Davis had some advantage when it came to reading the reports, knowing what to look for and conducting research to decide her next steps. She knew that she wanted a team with extensive expertise in meningiomas, even if it meant having to travel a long distance.
After vetting multiple neurosurgeons in the Southeast and beyond, she chose Houston Methodist in Texas.
“I sought out consults from the largest neurosurgery facilities in the nation, and there’s nothing bigger than the medical center (in Houston),” Davis says. “It’s actually dubbed the second skyline of Houston, so that made me really happy to be somewhere that they were doing procedures like this on a day-to-day basis.”
FINDING THE SILVER LININGS
As surgery approached on Sept. 29, Davis’s main concern was for her two boys: 16-year-old Tristan and 14-year-old Kingston. The woman celebrated among her loved ones and acquaintances for leading, juggling and holding everything together now had no choice but to rely on others.
“I will start by saying it’s a different perspective sitting on this side,” she wrote on her caringbridge.org page. “I have been a caregiver for so many years that now, thinking about how so many are caring for me … phew! It really gives me massive chills.”
Friends and family rallied to support Davis through prayer, financial donations and pitching in wherever her absence or incapacitation created a need. To their great relief, her surgery — which lasted some 14 hours — was successful, but Davis still faced a long recovery. The loss of her trademark red hair and scars crisscrossing her head were the most obvious evidence of her ordeal.
“It’s hard to open my mouth to eat. It hurts to yawn. It’s even hard to completely do my teeth-brushing routine,” she shared with her Facebook followers on Nov. 8.
To prevent a tumor recurrence, Davis would have to undergo radiation. However, she chose to focus on the silver lining.
“My smile is slowly, but surely coming back to its normal self,” she added. “I was supposed to be on liquid food for two months, and I’m not. I know things take time. I thank God for the blessings and positives during the storm.”
And those positives continued to rack up. The tumor, although aggressive, was not cancerous, and her steady progress continued to impress her medical team.
“Here is one thing that I will say: Adversity is not exclusive. Everyone faces adversity,” Davis says. “It’s how you handle that adversity that becomes exclusively yours.”
“I walked into this knowing that there was a plan that God had, a healing process that I was already working on.”
A transition from the hospital to her temporary stay in a foreign city marked the first of her two homecomings. Embracing self-care, she found solace in small moments like a post-surgery manicure. Returning to Biloxi proved to be a different challenge, requiring her to accept help and adjust to a new pace.
However, as a new year dawns, Davis has much to look forward to and be thankful for. The greatest gift of this experience, she says, was a deeper relationship with God. It also showed her something most people don’t get to see in their lifetime: How much she meant to others, and how many lives she had touched.
“A lot of times when you go through a hard time, you think nobody cares,” Davis says. “If you allow yourself to be vulnerable and share your moment, you see how much you are loved.”
Each year, Davis picks an inspirational action word to represent how she will approach the year. For 2024, she’s chosen pivot — acknowledging that she needs to change direction and move forward boldly.
She also wants other women to know that they don’t always have to be people pleasers — and that being healthy involves mind, body and spirit. We only get one body, she adds, and if something doesn’t feel right, trust your gut and get it checked.
As for what Davis’s future holds, count on her to keep inspiring others and setting an example of resilience.
“I really just want to be the strongest advocate that I can be for professional women,” she says. “The biggest thing that I can say is that I’m going to continue doing what I have been doing, and that’s taking care of myself and helping other women become better versions of themselves.”