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Family honors former model with fashion show to support research

By Allyson Bird
Office of Development and Alumni Affairs

Darlene Walter packed a full life into the little time she had.

A beauty pageant win in small-town Saint George landed her an international modeling contract at age 15. She watched from the street in New York as her father pulled away in a taxi and she began the first of six summers split between Manhattan and Tokyo.

She never paused her education and, after retiring from modeling at 22, she graduated from the University of South Carolina on time. She went to work for a law firm on the 13th floor of a Columbia office building, where her future husband, Tim, worked in commercial real estate development on the ninth floor. At the suggestion of a mutual friend, they agreed to an introduction at the building’s ATM one day.

                                             Tim, Cooper and Price Walter

“We met at the money machine, and nothing changed,” Tim likes to joke. Then his tone changes, “We just knew.”

The couple married in less than a year and moved to Charleston to start a family. They had two sons, Price and Cooper -- now 20 and 18, respectively -- and lived in homes that Darlene carefully decorated herself. When, at age 51, she learned that her lung cancer was terminal, she had only one request.

“I want my case to make a difference,” she told Tim. 

Darlene went to an urgent care clinic after experiencing chest pain in September 2009. Instead, an X-ray revealed a spot on her lung the size of a ping pong ball. She lived for one year and one month after her initial diagnosis.

After Darlene’s death, Tim joined the Hollings Cancer Center Citizens Advisory Council and visited research labs. He shared his story and attended events. At one dinner he sat beside a researcher who studies the mutation that caused Darlene’s cancer and who explained to Tim how research funding works.

“I learned about how little money it takes to get a research project seeded and to apply for other grants,” Tim said. “But that funding is crucial.”

Tim, Price and Cooper organized a fashion show called “Breath of Life” in Darlene’s honor. They brought in three emerging designers for the black tie-optional event that drew 125 people to Alhambra Hall in Mount Pleasant. At the end of the show, they donated $22,000 to Hollings Cancer Center and, specifically, to lung cancer research. 

The Walters chose to make their gift locally because of their experience at the Hollings Cancer Center and with Darlene’s oncologist, Dr. Keisuke Shirai. Dr. Shirai not only administered an aggressive treatment plan but kept Darlene’s – and her family’s – emotional condition in mind.

“He listened to us, and he was just genuinely concerned,” Tim said. “He called me a month or two after she died, and he still checks on me. It’s nice to feel like you’ve been listened to.”

Dr. Shirai said that lung cancer is his first interest, but his second passion is palliative care. He wants to give patients the best quality of life. He also recognizes the importance of his relationship with their families.  

“We helped her, but I do think she helped us a lot and gave us motivation,” Dr. Shirai said. “Patient-centered care is important, but it’s the family members who will live on. They are the legacy.”

The Walters plan to organize another event in Darlene’s honor and to turn their campaign into an annual fundraiser for lung cancer research. They hope to support further research and also to encourage people make choices to protect their health.

“We want to help another family,” Tim said. “That would be good for the boys.”