The most beautiful thing in Ken Novel’s living room was a grandfather clock he had built himself. But Novel’s masterpiece symbolized the one thing he didn’t have—time. On December 3, 2006, he was told he had liver cancer.
Not long after that, he decided to give his remaining months some meaning. He wanted more people to know about hospice care and what it can offer to patients and those who love them. He agreed to share his final journey with a stranger—me.
We soon discovered we were connected by more than a story. A year earlier, I had asked the Jewish Social Service Agency to find a hospice patient I could follow. It called about Ken right after I returned here from my brother Jeffrey’s funeral in New Jersey.
Jeffrey, 59—about the same age as Ken—died of cancer. There were other connections. Ken and his wife, Theresa, had grown up near Jeffrey and me on Long Island. They were from Floral Park; Jeffrey and I lived in Franklin Square. We were in the same school district. Ken and I spoke the same language—it’s more an attitude than an accent.
Joan de Pontet, then executive director of the Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), asked if Ken’s story would be too close for comfort. I said no. I hoped Novel would help me come to terms with what had happened to our family. He hoped I would help people understand what “hospice” means.
Ken Novel was a hairstylist and part owner of O Salon in Georgetown. He loved his family, his work, and Washington. He had gone to beauty school after serving in the Army in Vietnam. He came here from New York in 1970, and the first salon he opened was Hair Inc. in Georgetown. A brief marriage ended in divorce, but he stayed friendly with his ex-wife and close to his daughter Lisa.
In 1974, Novel went to Colorado for Christmas. He stayed nine years. In Aspen, he met hairstylist Theresa Berrent, and it was love at first sight. They married in 1983.
It was only after 17 years of marriage, when they went back to Ken’s childhood home in Floral Park, that they realized they had known each other as children. From his bedroom window, he could see her old apartment.
“We met when I was four years old,” Theresa says. “He was the big kid who wrecked my lemonade stand.
“Our lives kept intersecting. In Aspen, I was dating his best friend and he was dating mine.”
A daughter, Simone, was born in Aspen. The family moved back to Washington because Ken’s parents and brothers lived in this area. Their son, Anthony, was born here. Seven years ago, Novel opened O Salon with his brother Robert and two other partners.
Novel had always been healthy. He’d started playing golf as a kid when he caddied at the Bethpage golf course about half an hour from Floral Park. When he and Theresa lived in Colorado, they skied daily.
In recent years, he’d had some pain radiating from his chest into his right shoulder. He consulted his doctor, but the pain was intermittent and the doctor found nothing wrong.
Ken and his brother Gene went to New York for a family funeral in November 2006, and Ken had stomach cramps there. The pain worsened, then subsided. Back home at Thanksgiving, he felt too sick to eat. His son drove him to the emergency room at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital. He was there 11 days. Most of the time, he drifted in a fog of pain medications. Shady Grove doctors told the Novels they suspected Ken had a blood clot blocking the portal vein of his liver.
Several conditions can cause this kind of clot, including an inflammation of the bile ducts, pancreatitis, pancreatic cancer, and liver cancer. The Shady Grove doctors referred Novel to the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University. A blood clot sounded treatable.
Novel left O Salon around noon to go to the nearby Lombardi Center to get the test results. He had scheduled two clients for later that day. He told Theresa—a stylist at New Wave Salon in Rockville—she didn’t need to come along.
The Lombardi oncologist told Novel that one of the blood tests showed a high level of alpha-fetoprotein (AFP)—a marker for cancer. Normal levels of AFP are under 10; Ken’s count was 1,000. Imaging studies showed a tumor in the liver. Novel had what was called heptacellular carcinoma.
He called his brother at the Georgetown salon and said, “I got bad news. I’m not coming back.”
“You mean this afternoon?” Gene asked.
Ken drove home to wait for Theresa. He didn’t want to break the news by phone.
“I called him because he didn’t call me,” Theresa says. “I knew right away from his voice.”