Patty Virgilio, 54, dreamed of traveling Route 66 long before receiving breast, pancreatic and thyroid cancer diagnoses. “I’m a huge fan of America. I’ve been talking to my sister about doing this for about 20 years, and she’s laughed at me every time,” she says.
What started out as a “bucket list” trip for the Bradenton, FL, woman quickly flowered into much more for her, her sister and four of their friends. The Country Inn & Suites By Carlson in Amarillo, Texas, was glad to be a part of the journey.
“I used to say, ‘There’s no way I’m going to sit in a car and drive down this old road,’” recalls Patty’s sister, Jane Trinci. Then their lives changed. Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2007, and Patty received the same diagnosis four months later. Three years after that, doctors diagnosed Patty with stage four pancreatic cancer, and two years later, in 2014, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
“Many people live only five years with pancreatic cancer, so I got kind of panicked. Already, it has been a journey and true miracle that I am still here,” Patty says, having undergone more than 40 rounds of chemotherapy. “It has been three years and 10 months since my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. So I thought, I’ve got to start spreading hope. And what better way of doing that than taking Route 66? My sister agreed it would be a good idea.”
By July 7, Patty, Jane and four friends who also signed on for the trip were celebrating at a send-off party. “A lot of people who didn’t know Patty but knew of her came to the party after seeing the coverage in the local newspaper,” says friend Julie Rothfeld, 51. The celebration included a priest sprinkling them with holy water, the mayor giving them keys to the city and dancers performing to a Route 66 song. “The next night we hopped on a plane to Chicago.”
“My husband and son were surprised I was going after having chemo on Tuesday,” Patty says. “I talked to them throughout the trip, and they were proud of me for living in spite of this diagnosis. You still have to find life and ways to live, and it’s very important to get the support you need.”
Starting in Chicago, the group followed Route 66 across the country to California. Support surrounded them. On the plane to Chicago, the flight attendant had passengers write inspirational messages on napkins and then pass them to Patty at the end of the flight. From Chicago, the self-proclaimed “Sixty Sixtahs” jumped in an SUV and embarked on a 2,400-mile road trip through towns large and small while friends back home kept fans updated via social media.
After receiving a tweet announcing their impending arrival, the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson hotel in Amarillo, Texas, had a few treats waiting for the Sixty Sixtahs. In addition to gift bags in the rooms of each of the six travelers, the desk manager wrote a personal welcome note for them. “They were wonderful. They were so nice,” says Jane. “The desk manager’s note thanked us for making Country Inns & Suites part of the trip.”
Patty agrees, “They went above and beyond. You just don’t expect that from a hotel chain but they were very welcoming. They even left us a note with how to get to Cadillac Ranch, which was a place we wanted to visit, and gave us tips on restaurants.”
Julie, who also traveled with the group, calls the whole experience therapeutic. “We made so many connections. We went to a Tex-Mex restaurant Country Inns & Suites recommended, and this 19-year-old boy wanted to talk to us — a group of 50-year-old women — about our experiences. He wanted to hear Patty’s story. That was surprising.” People stopped them almost everywhere they went while following Patty Virgilio’s story on social media.
“It reconnected me with people,” Patty says. “People just had to meet us and give a hug and say how amazing and inspirational our trip was. We saw museums. We saw the Grand Canyon. We saw tiny towns we’d never thought we’d see.”
Jane says she and her sister had taken frequent vacations with their mom and two older sisters in the past, and while they’d always enjoyed those, this was an entirely different dynamic. “It was a great experience, a lot of fun.”
Patty is grateful she didn’t miss the opportunity to take her dream trip. “I have to live every day. I just have to make it through that day, and then those days turn to weeks, the weeks turn into months and the months turn into years. You just have to keep going. What started out being a ‘bucket list’ trip ended up changing us all.”