I’m sitting in a comfortable room in the Huntsman Cancer Hospital right now. It’s Christmas Eve and snowing lightly in Salt Lake City. Not too far from me is my loving wife and companion in a bed having a pretty good day, considering she has just finished up her last of seven days of chemotherapy. It certainly isn’t how we expected to be spending Christmas Eve. But in many ways we are blessed to be here with Nancy receiving care as she battles the Leukemia that has shortened our mission. Had it not been for two gifts of the spirit, we might not be here today and the cancer might still be growing uninhibited inside of her as we continued our work in Kiel.
Our unexpected transfer started at a time still unknown to either of us. Cancer doesn’t announce itself. The doctors in Kiel and in the U.S both agreed that the Leukemia probably started maybe 2-6 weeks before Nancy went to the doctor. But, going to that doctor was our first in a series of blessings.
Nancy had served her mission with regular bouts of pain. Arthritis in her Hip and Scolioses in her back were afflictions we knew about when we applied for the mission. She accepted the fact that standing or walking for long periods would cause pain and probably headaches that would become part of our work routine. It was. She told me it didn’t matter. We would do the best we could. When we needed to work the Lord would help us and when she needed rest He would understand. That had seemed to work for our whole mission. Nancy would often say to me how amazed she was that on our heavy cooking days, the Lord would give her the stamina to work from morning until late at night. She wouldn’t feel the pain until the following day when she needed to rest a bit. I was always amazed at her ability to bounce back from the pain under which she worked.
As it came close to the Christmas season, she started to have headaches each night whether she was working or not. We had talked about going to a doctor, but it was inconvenient and we really didn’t know a particular doctor. On Dec. 6, and institute night, Sister Frank had mentioned her headaches to a sweet member of our young single adults, Anna-Katherina Marak. Anna had recently been to a doctor in Kiel who accepted walk-in patients and he had helped her quite a bit and mentioned him to Nancy. We continued to work that night and had a great time mingling with the young people during dinner after institute class. It was around 11:00 when we finished cleaning up and headed for home. Snow had been falling off and on for several days and continued that night. When we arrived home snow covered the roads and we couldn’t find a parking place. I passed our apartment, found a place to turn around then went to drop off Nancy at the apartment. She didn’t have her key with so I tried to get mine off of the key holder. Then I noticed the lights of two cars coming up behind me. The road is only one lane next to our apartment with the cars parked in the snow. I asked Nancy if she would mind walking with me from the Sky Market (our next choice for parking) then I could get out of the way of the two cars behind me. She agreed and that became our second blessing. After we parked and began walking home, Nancy would walk for a few hundred yards then need to stop to get her breath. After a few times, I told her we needed to see a doctor about the headaches and she mentioned that she might also be anemic. Had she gone straight to the apartment instead of walking that night, we might not have visited the doctor so soon.
The next day we walked into Dr. Geraedts office and after a short wait, Nancy explained about her headaches. It was quite different from an office visit in the US. Dr. Geraedts sat in a chair and interviewed Nancy about her history and medications, but never physically examined her or took blood pressure etc. In fact we weren’t in an examination room, but rather an office with a library and the the Doctors own desk and computer. After his interview his assessment was that Nancy’s headaches were rebound headaches caused by the lengthy use of OTC drugs she had been taking. He presented a new routine for her and we were about to leave when Nancy asked if she could get a blood test because she thought she might be anemic. That was the third blessing. We made the appointment for that for the next morning. The nurse took the sample and we left. Nancy followed the Dr’s. plan and, in fact, was headache free for several days. But on Tues. Dec. 11, we received a call from the Doctor who said that Nancy needed to go to the hospital as soon as possible. We had a Zone Conference in Hamburg with a visiting general authority so I asked at first if we could wait until Friday. The doctor hesitated, then said yes, but that we shouldn’t wait longer. After the phone call, however, we talked and knew that we needed to go in and find out what was up.
Wed. I took Nancy to the hospital admitting room, but then left her there when I realized that I had nothing from the doctor to show that she should be admitted. I went back to the Doctor’s office and the receptionist called him, and he said to her that he wanted to see me rather than just to give me a note. At that point, I had this pang of fear hit my stomach and I knew things weren’t good. He met me in a side room and said “I’m nervous about her tests.” Then he spoke of her low white blood cell and platelet count and for the first time mentioned the word Leukemia. It wasn’t the only thing he brought up, but even the sound of the word gave me fear. When I joined Nancy, I never mentioned what the Doctor had said, but it lingered in my mind as she was taken to a room placed on an IV so that they could give her a unit of blood and eventually platelets.
Our stay at the Städtische Krankenhaus Kiel (one of the main hospitals in Kiel) wasn’t long, but we went through some of the most excruciating moments of our marriage and mission. We had a young doctor who was caring, helpful and very honest. After the check-in on Wednesday, They took more blood from Nancy, did a couple of tests, then we waited until the results on Thurs. I went home for the night, but sleeping alone in the apartment was the most uncomfortable night of our mission. We had heard jokes about being with your wife 24/7 on a mission. Here I was without her for the first time, and I hated it.
The next day, we received the results from the blood analysis. Our nurse didn’t hesitate. I don’t even think she said, “ I’ve got bad news.” She just told us that the results were clear that it was Leukemia, and the “acute” kind. She said that Nancy would have to have a bone marrow biopsy on Friday and then she would begin treatment. We listened but the words were so unbelievable that we didn’t know quite what to say. To this day, I haven’t asked Nancy what she thought at that moment, but for me there was only one thought. “We are going home.” It wasn’t a thought prompted by lack of confidence in the Kiel doctors or hospital. The doctor had told me that the doctor at the Kiel Hospital, Dr. Michael Kneba, was a world famous oncologist and since then we have heard about him in Salt Lake. I just knew that we needed to be around family. We needed to have their support and help.
The doctors were very helpful in getting Nancy ready for the journey. She needed platelets and a blood transfusion, and she needed a hospital ready to take her. Of course we needed a flight, and we needed to pack up everything from our apartment. It was mid-afternoon, Nancy and I were both in shock, but we didn’t have time to think about it much. They had told us time was important. The first hard thing was telling Nancy I would have to leave her to make calls and get things started. I remember that ride to the apartment just trying to organize everything in my mind and not allow myself to wander into the future.
I called Uwe first thing to ask his help in getting a plane ticket, and in one comment he set me right. First call the mission president. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about that. I had just thought I would have to do everything myself. President Kosak was shocked but effective in telling me what to do. He would call the church in Salt Lake and they would take care of the flight. They would also notify a doctor to talk to me. I hung up and decided to call my son, Jon, and have him contact the Huntsman Cancer Institute. In my mind it was the only hospital I could think of that concentrated strictly on cancer. In a few minutes Jon called back and gave me a name and number to call. However, he said that there would have to be a doctor to doctor conversation in order to admit her. I hung up and looked around the room and wondered how this would ever work out. I know I offered prayers that day pleading for all the help the Lord would give us. They were all answered.
First, the mission president called me back and told me to pack up and leave for Berlin as soon as possible. He said the church would arrange and pay for a flight. A doctor had called me from Frankfurt and said he would make arrangements in Salt Lake if I couldn’t connect with the Huntsman doctor. Second, one of the young doctors found a phone that could make international calls, and together with me and another doctor who spoke pretty good English, we made the call to Dr. Newalin at Huntsman, who said everything would be ready and we should travel there immediately from the airport on our arrival in Salt Lake. Third, the sister missionaries, Sister Laubaugh and Sister Thornton called and were worried because we hadn’t come to the zone conference that day in Hamburg. After I explained everything, they offered to come to the apartment and help pack. They ended up packing everything with the help of Sabina Zickler, who dropped whatever she had going on and without car made her way to the apartment and stayed until everything was done. Uwe was spreading the word and before I knew it other people were calling and expressing their love. Lastly, the stake president came to our apartment as the packing was concluding and said he would send us a few items that we just couldn’t fit in the suitcases. He also was a great comfort to me as I tried to say our goodbyes to him and the few others there helping us get everything ready. When we finally left for Berlin, it was 9:00 p.m.
We were both physically and emotionally tired. Nancy asked if I would be OK driving because she needed to sleep. We drove away from Kiel and in an hour we received the next answer to our prayers as Elder Spendlove called me on my cell phone and told me to wake up. He was under orders from Pres. Kosak to call us every hour until we reached Berlin. He was faithful in his duty and we were embraced by Pres. and Sister Kosak a little after 1:00 a.m. He offered us a room to sleep and his office if needed, but said we would have to be up at 4:00 a.m. to make it to the airport on time. Nancy slept, I sent messages home and we ended our final day in Germany with fear in our hearts, but grateful for the tender mercies of the Lord.