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Eric's heroes: She left her business to run her friend's after cancer struck

Susan Lehman and Jennifer Manrique have been friends forever. When Jennifer's baby got cancer, she learned just how true that friendship is. (Photo: KOMO News)

BURLINGTON, Wash -- There's something to be said for living in Burlington.

On a clear day beautiful Mount Baker looms off in the distance to the east. The San Juan Islands are short little ferry ride away to the west.

The air is clean, the seafood is fresh, and the living is easy.

And tucked snuggly into the small town, along South Burlington Boulevard, is a tiny stand-alone building with a sandwich board in front that says Roots Hair Salon.

Inside, Susan Lehman, bubbly and chatty, goes about the business of cutting a woman's hair. It's what she loves to do.

The woman is a new client of Susan's. In fact, all of her clients lately are new.

"The longer I've worked here," she says happily, "the easier it's gotten. I know all the clients. They like me, so that works ..."

The truth is, this isn't even really Susan's salon.

Her salon is up the road a couple miles. It's adjoined to her home. But it's empty right now, because Susan is here at Roots.

Meanwhile, across town, Jennifer Manrique was busy tending to her two children. Three-year old Nathan was bouncing all over the room, with his wild curly hair and dimples.

And baby Jerome was in his mother's arms, smiling and slobbering and grabbing at his feet.

"What's up?" Jennifer cooed to him, with her face lose to his. "What's up, Jerome?"

Jerome has had, by all accounts, a pretty rough first six months in this world. Shortly after birth they found a cancerous mass behind his right eye. It was an uncommon cancer called sarcoma.

Jerome's right eye had to be removed, and he's undergoing chemotherapy. It has been and will continue to be a white-knuckled fight to rid his tiny body of cancerous cells.

Trying to sum up the entire experience, Jennifer says, "I would say the hardest part is having to stay down in Seattle with Jerome while Nathan is up here with his dad."

She and Jerome have become familiar faces at the Ronald McDonald House in Seattle. His next treatment, which starts this week, will be five days of chemo and then a two-week break. And then back for more. It will be that way for the next six months.

Like all childhood diseases, this one isn't fair. Cancer, as Jennifer has learned, doesn't care about fair.

As soon as the mass was discovered, she immediately stopped working so she could tend full time to Jerome's needs.

Jennifer is the owner of Roots Salon in Burlington.

Susan and Jennifer knew each other at high school in Burlington, but it was at beauty school that they became best friends.

They were in each other's weddings, and they remained close through the formative years of having children and building careers.

Their husbands still play on the same softball team.

In the salon business, your clients are your lifeblood. Business blends into friendship and the bond between hairdresser and client is built on a foundation of familiarity and loyalty.

But all salon workers know that if they aren't there, their clients will go somewhere else. And they might not get them back.

Susan clips bangs with her scissors and says, "Nobody likes changing hairdressers. It's tricky. And in this case they weren't looking for somebody new, so I'm just trying to keep them happy."

Here's what happened: When Jennifer left her business to tend to Jerome's fight... Susan left HER business to tend to Jennifer's clients.

When I ask what that's been like, Susan smiles and pauses for a moment. "Just being a full-time working mom has been different, but ... I 'm adapting."

She's been showing up to cut Jennifer's clients' hair two days a week for five months. And she'll keep showing up.

A week later we went back to Roots, because on this day, for just the second time since Jerome was born, Jennifer was able to come into the salon for a couple hours. We watched here cut hair for a few minutes, and she talked about how nice it was to be back at work, even for just a short time. She says it will be November before she can go back to work full time.

And then Susan came in, and between clients we got the two of them to sit down with us for a few minutes.

Jennifer is a little more shy than her friend, but it was easy to see how touched she is about what Susan has been doing.

"Obviously I can't believe she's doing this for me," she says. "It's amazing."

For her part, Susan tries to make the whole thing seem like no big deal.

"It was exactly what I was supposed to do," she says. "It took like a minute after I heard what was going on. I talked to my husband and we said, 'Yeah, this is what you need to do.' "

It's hard to imagine the stress of having a newborn child with a life-threatening cancer tumor. Jennifer wears it well, but certainly there must be times when it feels like the walls are crashing in upon her. Her baby needs her. Her son and her husband need her, too. And then there is the business ...

But she has more friends than she ever knew. The community of Burlington has opened its arms and wrapped them tightly around her family. There have been fundraisers for Jerome, and Jennifer keeps getting cards in the mail from people she doesn't even know. There's something to be said for living in Burlington.

And then there is her bubbly, chatty friend Susan. She'll keep coming into Roots to take care of her friend's clients until she is no longer needed.

And her own salon will remain empty.

And Jerome will be with his mom through all the rough stuff.

And for those of us who care to notice, there is a bright, shining example of what true friendship is all about.

Before we left, the two of them stood up and hugged. And it seemed like it might last forever.

Which it undoubtedly will.

Editor's Note: "Eric's Heroes" is a weekly series airing every Wednesday on KOMO News in the 6 p.m. newscast. If you have a good story about a good person doing good things for the right reasons, share it with Eric by sending an email to heroes@komonews.com.

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