McMillan Carries Forward Her Mom’s Legacy of Relationships
Video by: Kelly Rohrer, Lehigh Sports Communications
Story By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
When Hetty McMillan walked across stage at commencement on Monday, she had someone in the forefront of her mind.
McMillan’s mother Audrey Bellow passed away on September 5, 2018 – just 13 days into Hetty’s journey at Lehigh. Bellow had been battling glioblastoma, stage four brain cancer, since the previous March… Hetty’s junior year of high school.
“I would describe my mom as the most selfless, genuine and courageous person I have ever met,” said McMillan. “Her selflessness was seen in her generosity and kindness towards others. She always gave up her time and energy to do things for people she cared about. Her genuine and sincere nature was seen in her honest relationships with people.”
When thinking of her mom’s legacy, Hetty first thinks about relationships formed and the impact she had on others.
“That is something I will continue to admire and appreciate most about her and carry with me in my life,” said McMillan. “She taught me how to treat people with kindness and keep an open mind when it came to forming relationships.”
McMillan is carrying that legacy of relationships forward in everything she does, including as a leader on the Mountain Hawks’ track and field team.
This spring, McMillan was a member of the 4X800m relay team that won both the indoor and outdoor Patriot League championship. McMillan’s relationship-building played an integral role in the success.
“Hetty really modeled hard work, goal-setting and consistency,” said assistant track and field coach (and head women’s cross country coach) Debbie Utesch. “She set the stage for her younger teammates to follow in her footsteps, or as we’ve said, ‘pass the baton.’ Hetty served as one of the catalysts in bridging the personalities of the women’s SMD (sprints and middle distance) and MD (middle distance) event groups. Connecting those two groups of women led to incredible training groups, which in turn led to championship results.
“Those women were able to build trust by investing in their relationships with each other off the track, so when it comes time to pass the baton to a teammate, you know everyone has done what it takes and will put everything on the line for each other.”
Hetty would do anything for her teammates, and they would do anything for her.
That second family at Lehigh has helped (and continues to help) her get through the most challenging time of her life.
With May being Brain Cancer Awareness Month, McMillan hopes her story can help others who have, are, or will unfortunately deal with a similar situation.
The Cancer Journey
After Hetty’s mom was diagnosed in March of 2017, the cancer initially progressed slowly.
“She worked at Tapestry, Inc. (a multinational luxury fashion holding company) in licensing,” said McMillan. “She took a step away for about a year, focused on her treatment and stayed at home with my step dad and I. She was doing alright my senior year and it was nice because it was the first time in my life I was able to spend a lot of time with her because she had always been a working mom.
“That was a special time I hold deeply and closely to my heart.”
However, about a year after initial diagnosis, the cancer progressed.
“The summer going into my freshman year, things were going pretty downhill,” said McMillan. “I was at a crossroads with making a decision. Do I stay home or go to school?
“I ultimately made the decision to go to school and she passed pretty soon after.”
It was the 13th day of her freshman year when McMillan got a call that her mom had died.
Riding the Emotional Waves
Throughout the entire journey, emotions would fluctuate from lows to highs, and everything in between.
“When she was first diagnosed, I remember it didn’t feel very real,” said McMillan. “Leading up to her diagnosis, she was saying she felt kind of off and felt like she was hearing voices or continuous ringing. It was really unexpected when she got diagnosed. The emotions initially were pretty shocking. Then, things got better during my senior year [of high school].
“But once her disease got worse going into the summer of my freshman year at Lehigh, she was moved into a nursing home and a rehabilitation center. That was when everything shifted to more of a frustration and sadness because everything felt more real.”
Ever since her mom’s passing (and even before), emotions have come in waves.
“There are times when I feel completely fine and then other times, I feel like I’m not doing so well and I really need those people who were part of my support group initially to really help me,” said McMillan.
Support has played a world of difference throughout her mom’s entire battle with cancer.
“My sister was actually away at college, so it was just my step dad, my mom and I living at home, so I was really reliant on my friends and teammates on my Greenwich track and field team,” said McMillan. “When I came to Lehigh and my mom passed, the [Lehigh] team was really supportive and that came a lot from my upperclassmen, and Coach Deb and Coach Matt. They were checking in with me all the time.
“I am very grateful for that because I don’t think I would be on the trajectory I’m on now if I wasn’t supported or didn’t have this [track and field] family immediately coming onto campus.”
Almost four years have passed, but McMillan’s support group still plays an important role when she’s in the midst of a low amongst the waves.
“It requires me reaching out [to my support group] or them recognizing what’s going on,” said Hetty.
“In my college career, in trying to figure out what I want for myself, what my life beyond Lehigh looks like, it’s also dealing with the aspect of loss. I lost a major person in my life, a huge figure in my life.”
Dealing With Loss
McMillan doesn’t think there’s enough attention in society on the challenge of dealing with loss.
“A lot of college students and a lot of young people go through loss,” she said. “It’s often overlooked and sometimes forgotten about. I think it’s really important to be able to remember those people, and remember the impact they had in your life. My mom was my biggest role model and someone I looked up to.
“I think it needs to be brought to light more how difficult it is to go through loss at such a young age, or at any point in your life, and the importance of a support group,” McMillan continued. “To have people recognize how difficult it is to go through loss at such a young age – or at any point in your life – is something that obviously no one should go through, but happens. People should be made more aware of how difficult that is and how challenging it is to overcome.
“My advice [to others dealing with loss] would be to not be afraid to reach out for help and don’t be afraid to rely on other people. Being able to reevaluate my priorities and bring perspective on people I really trust was key for me.”
Hetty’s Mom Would Be Proud
Whenever McMillan is at a crossroads, or feels like she’s struggling, she thinks about her mom and what she would do.
“It has been a lot of different waves of me doing really well and me not doing so well, and I think it just comes down to having self awareness for where I am, how I can improve or how I can remember the times when I was doing well,” she said.
Speaking of well, McMillan has done exceptionally well in everything she’s been a part of at Lehigh. Her mom would certainly be proud of all she’s accomplished. She owns a 3.82 GPA as a psychology major, is a two-time Academic All-Patriot League honoree and two-time Patriot League Champion on the track.
It has been anything but easy, though, as a Division I student-athlete at a challenging institution like Lehigh while also dealing with such a challenging life event at such a young age.
“My mom wanted me to continue with my progression with my athletics, academics and my career, and not let this disease deter me from continuing my life,” said McMillan.
“When Hetty arrived on campus as a freshman and soon went through the loss of her mother, my heart was so heavy for her as I thought about an 18-year old making that major transition to college without the stability of that support figure in her life,” said Utesch. “Hetty’s transformation over four years has been incredible. She has faced so many personal challenges from the loss of her mother through her personal fluke ‘rogue wave’ tragic injury, surgery and recovery, and has come out of it all as such a strong, focused young woman.
“I am so proud of her personal strength, resilience and toughness.”
It took all those adjectives for McMillan to fight through those times, but at the same time, it’s okay to not be okay. And there were times when McMillan wasn’t okay. But through her own strength, combined with a strong support group, she is leaving Lehigh stronger than ever before.
One thing McMillan has gained from the experience is perspective on life in general.
“It’s made me think about how valuable your time is,” she said. “It makes you think about how being at Lehigh, you only have four years here. It makes me reflect on my relationships. Who do I want to be spending the most time with?
“Who do I want to be making the most genuine and lifelong relationships with?”
It’s more than a word. It’s something her mom exhibited and taught.
Like her mom, Hetty hopes the legacy she’s leaving on the Lehigh track and field team boils down to relationships. Championships are nice, but relationships last a lifetime.
“Hetty lights up every room she walks in to,” said classmate and fellow 4X800m relay champion Kara Bonner. “Her positive energy is contagious and has had a huge impact on the team in every regard from the way she carries herself with grace and kindness to her record-breaking performances on the track. She is always encouraging and motivating to every teammate and sets the gold standard for what putting in hard work truly is. She has overcome more challenges in college than many will face in a lifetime and she is a huge inspiration to all of us.
“I’m so thankful to have gotten the chance to be her workout partner because I’ve learned so much from her; her outlook on life and on track are nothing short of inspirational and touches the heart of everyone she has run with.”
As McMillan said, “Time is such a valuable and precious thing. Fifty-five years for my mom; no one thought that’s how little time she had left. It makes me think sometimes, okay, I’m 21 almost turning 22. That almost would have been the halfway point of her life. What have I accomplished and at the end of the day, what impact have I left?
“It just makes me think a lot about the relationships I want to form and how genuine I want to be with the presence of my life.”
Always With Her
McMillan is a living embodiment of her mom, and she is helping keep her mom’s memory alive as well.
“Every Mother’s Day, my family plants and is home all together,” she said. “Over the summers, her birthday is on June 14 – Flag Day. We all get together as a family. I’ve also been thinking a lot about trying to do something to integrate my running as a tribute to her.”
McMillan can’t shake the number 13 from her mind (the number of days into her first year at Lehigh when her mom died).
“I was thinking of doing something like a half marathon or a tribute every year where I could raise money to donate to the Sloane Memorial Kettering hospital in Manhattan (where her treatment went through),” she said.
McMillan also has earrings she wears every day with her own birthstone and the birthstones of her mom and older sister.
“I wear them every day and I wear them to all my meets,” said Hetty. “I think it’s a little reminder that my sister and mom are with me. There’s the connection of the three of us being together infinitely.”
The memory of her mom will be with Hetty forever.
“Her courage was seen in her successful career in fashion and battle against her cancer,” said McMillan. “Her energy and presence was contagious; everyone in a room would smile whenever she was around.”
And there’s no doubt Hetty’s mom was looking down on Hetty walking across the stage at Monday’s commencement, proud and smiling at the young woman Hetty has become.