Community rallies behind ‘loving’ longtime New Milford bus driver diagnosed with cancer

From left, Kristi Yachulki and her mother, Lisa Yachulki

From left, Kristi Yachulki and her mother, Lisa Yachulki

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NEW MILFORD — For more than 25 years, resident Lisa Yachulke has seen children of all ages every day, as driver of Bus 44 in town.

She has also helped out at work wherever needed, such as fueling and cleaning the buses, and doing snow removal.

“She's done it all,” said her daughter, Alicia Atwood, 28, of Woodbury.

Atwood is now not sure when her mother can return to work since Yachulke, who is 58, was recently diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. The cancer has spread to other parts of her body.

Yachulke’s family is raising money for her medical expenses through a GoFundMe page. As of Saturday afternoon, the page has raised about $4,200.

‘Trouble saying words’

Atwood said her mother woke up on April 26 and couldn’t move her arm.

“She was trying to put her hair up and she ended up forgetting how to use a hair tie and was having trouble saying words," said the daughter, reliving the day when she said her family's nightmare began.

Yachulke immediately went to the emergency room. An X-ray revealed a marble-sized tumor in her brain and a huge mass surrounding it.

“The tumor was cutting her ability to talk,” Atwood said. “It stopped the whole function of her right arm, so she couldn't move it.”

Yachulke, a New Milford resident and grandmother of five, had brain surgery and while the tumor was removed, she learned she had more health issues.

“They ended up doing MRIs and CAT scans of her whole body and they found it was cancerous,” Atwood said.

Yachulke’s cancer has spread to her brain, her back and her bones.

Before Yachulke’s diagnosis, she seemed healthy, Atwood said.

“There were no symptoms. It just kind of came on really, really fast.”

Since her surgery, her daughters have been driving her to doctor's appointments, such as speech therapy. “Her speech is still affected from where the tumor was located. It messed up that part of her brain so she's retraining herself how to speak again,” Atwood said.

She said her mother’s oncologist will meet with the family to discuss the next steps in her care.

Atwood, who has a family of her own, said she and her two sisters are trying to digest the news while being available for their mother.

“My sister has two little girls and I also have three little kids myself. So it's hard. We're trying to juggle all of this and, you know, we have to be strong for them and try to be strong for her at the same time. But we do have our moments where we break,” Atwood said.

Atwood, who said her mother regularly sees all her grandchildren, said it will be difficult explaining to them about their grandmother's condition.

“We haven't sat them down and told them everything,” she said. “So we're kind of like trying to keep it neutral. But she does get to talk to them on the phone and see their faces.”

Atwood added her mother misses all the children on her bus route very much.

“It's very hard for her. She can't drive at all right now and we're not sure for how long. They (Her physicians) want her to definitely wait a couple of weeks,” Atwood said. “She’s going to need radiation and then they're going to want to start some type of chemo. So it's going to be a rough road and she's out of work right now.”

Yachulke’s long-time friend, New Milford resident Rachel Horwath, has known her for 12 years.

“She was one of the few people that reached out and made me feel welcome,” said Horwath, who is also a bus driver. “She was just very supportive. When I failed my first (bus) driver's test, she was there. And we've just became close friends.”

She said they shared many experiences together over the years — both on and off the job.

“We always protect each other,” she said.

Horwath, who is also 58, said they both grew up watching the hit TV series “I Love Lucy.”

“She's Lucy and I'm Ethel. We have magnets in our buses and say ‘My Lucy’ and ‘My Ethel.’”

Horwath said she considers Yachulke one of her best friends. “She's judgment free. She is an unconditional, loving friend,” Horwath said. “I just love her. I Love Lucy.”

‘One day at at time’

Atwood said her family is staying positive and taking things one day at a time.

Yachulke is now home from the hospital and resting.

She’s also getting many phone calls.

“A lot of the parents of the kids on her bus from years ago have reached out to us and it's been awesome,” Atwood said.