Family, friends and fellow cancer patients had formed a circle of support around brain tumor patient Tom Lambert in the months before he and his wife, Jan, were killed when fire ravaged their Naperville home.
Tom's sister, Patricia Carhoff, moved from Arizona to live with Tom and Jan on Field Court and assist with her brother's care. The siblings joined a cancer support group at Edward Hospital in Naperville shortly after Tom's diagnosis in 2012 with an aggressive tumor called glioblastoma multiforme. And two months ago, when a support group formed specifically for brain tumor patients and their caregivers, Tom and his sister were among the founding members.
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"(Tom's sister) was so supportive of him and you could tell how close they were," said Linda Conlin, a licensed clinical social worker with Edward Cancer Center who led the brain tumor group. "She did not feel that anything was a burden. She just wanted to help him through this and do the best she could."
Family friend Mike Collins of Barrington Hills said Carhoff tried to help Tom and Jan, who was blind from her own bout with a brain tumor more than 25 years ago, escape Wednesday morning when fire erupted about 6:50 a.m. at their house near Aurora Avenue and River Road.
But heavy smoke soon had her gasping for air and her father, John Lambert, pulled her away.
Firefighters arrived at 6:53 a.m. as the father and daughter were escaping the burning building, where the flames were fed by oxygen tanks and a ruptured gas line.
Naperville firefighters say the fire is not suspicious, but they still are working to determine what sparked the blaze and where it started.
The worst damage was to the back of the house, but the entire structure will have to be demolished once the investigation is complete.
Tom Lambert, 57, was a psychologist in Naperville until his condition forced him to stop working. Conlin said Lambert "truly believed in the power of support groups," and didn't tell other patients about his psychology expertise so he wouldn't be treated as someone with special knowledge.
"He was very inspirational and kind," Conlin said. "What he focused on always were the things he could do instead of the things he was unable to do."
Tom sought out books for hope, inspiration and ideas for additional therapies, meditation and medical trials. A caregiver who visited in the afternoons would read to Jan, 56, neighbors said.
Tom loved to run, so although he was beginning to suffer falls, he and Carhoff talked with Conlin about ways he could continue jogging. Being outside was part of the joy of running for Tom, but Conlin said she suggested he take his runs inside so he would not be alone if he fell.
When Tom came to Edward Hospital for radiation treatments, his father, John, often would be at his side.
"He really loved his family; his wife, his sister, his dad. He talked a lot about that," Conlin said. "He felt very valued and loved, and he loved them."
Friends like Collins called the couple gentle and kind, remembering Jan's sense of humor and tendency to slip into an Irish brogue just for fun, as well as Tom's laid-back demeanor.
"Tom was very soft-spoken," Collins said, and as a psychologist, he'd often let others dominate the conversation. "He'd be inquiring about you and wouldn't disclose his feelings very much, but he would chuckle about things a lot."
Back in the Edward support group, which met Wednesday afternoon just hours after the deadly fire, Conlin said she spent the session "trying to help the other patients with the pain of knowing Tom was killed."
They all knew him and will miss him, she said.
"The main thing is you need to discuss it," Conlin said. "You need to be there with each other."