My wife LeAnn died with her hand in both of mine just over two months ago. Risk of infections was nothing new to us. We had to live under that dark cloud almost five years. A blood cancer had compromised her immune system. The longer she had the disease the more prone she was to infections of all kinds—bacterial, fungal, viral or a combination of these. She passed away just as the new virus that everyone is talking about became public knowledge. How she faced the fear of infections is a permanent monument to her faith and love.
It began in 2015. A doctor told us that her bone marrow biopsy revealed that she had MDS, an uncommon cancer for someone her age. He showed us a chart with the median life expectancy for someone with this disease and said, “You have MDS. I’m sorry.” I didn’t feel the weight of his words until we got on the elevator to leave. When the doors closed I felt like something was squeezing my entire body and I had trouble getting my breath. I looked at her and said, “He just told you how long you have to live, didn’t he?” From that day our lives changed and I have never looked at life the same.
After two years of blood transfusions every 2-3 weeks, chemotherapy and other treatments, LeAnn decided that her best hope was a stem cell transplant. We had gone to some of the top cancer centers in the country so we knew the dangers involved. The transplant procedure can kill a person because the high doses of chemotherapy wipe out the healthy as well as the cancerous blood cells. The patient is taken close to the point of death. But that is only the beginning. Since the transplanted cells in her case had to come from a donor (which turned out to be her brother) there was the likelihood of what is called GVHD (Graft Versus Host Disease) that renders the patient suspect to different acute or chronic infections. But that was not all. Her weakened immune system left her open to contracting infections of all types from contact with other people. She read extensively. She understood the suffering and risks, and yes, she was afraid. She told me at times, “The thought of GVHD terrifies me.”
Why did she go through with this dangerous procedure which, even if it worked, would leave her vulnerable to infection for the rest of her life? This is what she told me: “I’m doing this for you.” I cannot even begin to put into words the pain that I feel when I recall those words. But as I look back now I realize that her rare courage and unselfish example showed the true meaning of putting the wellbeing of others above your own fears. She truly understood the meaning of self-denial and the Golden Rule. And that was not surprising. She had given one of her kidneys years before to an unrelated sister in Christ without having a second thought.
We had to attend sessions about tedious precautions to avoid infections. No live flowers in the house. Use your elbow instead of your hand to open a door. Peel an apple and wash the knife before you use it again to slice the apple. Wear a mask and put on gloves. Avoid direct contact with people. Even be careful with your mate. I asked the transplant doctor to put these rules into perspective and this is what he said: “Be careful, but don’t go crazy about it.” How I wish that people who are paralyzed by fear today would listen to the common sense of his advice! I know doctors and nurses want to preserve our lives. For that we are thankful. But they can get things out of proportion. I realize also that medical professionals issue extra precautions because they know most patients won’t do or remember half of what they tell them anyway.
After the transplant we learned about real isolation. LeAnn spent a month in a protective room on the isolation floor of the hospital. I was her primary caregiver so I lived in that room with her for the first two weeks. Her twin sister and other ladies from church rotated with me after that. To my surprise she could have visitors and did. I left the room several times a day to eat in the cafeteria or take a walk outside which nurses encouraged. Sometimes I wondered how this was consistent with what we’d been taught. After all, I came into contact with the outside world, and though I always washed my hands before I entered the room, there was no way to fully sterilize my shoes or clothes.
LeAnn suffered with terrible headaches, skin rashes, bowel disorders, chills, sores in her mouth and throat and some bleeding from the harsh chemotherapy. It was painful to watch then and it is very painful to recall it now. But her words kept ringing in my heart: “I’m doing this for you.”
When she was released from the hospital she stayed in an apartment close to the cancer clinic for almost two months. I will always be grateful to the family members, friends, and sisters in Christ who helped as caretakers during this time. LeAnn’s immune system was still very weak. But everyone who stayed with her was careful without, as her doctor said, going crazy about it.
It was not long until LeAnn wanted to go to church. Her doctor wasn’t excited about the idea but he didn’t tell her to stay in the apartment. One nurse told her not to eat the Lord’s Supper. So what did LeAnn do? She went to church and ate the Lord’s Supper about two months after the transplant. She was careful. She sat in the back and wore a mask and gloves. And she didn’t catch anything.
After close to three months she came home. The transplant gave her better quality of life for about nine months. Then the cancer returned. This meant we were back to more chemotherapy and bi-monthly blood transfusions. It also meant she would be prone to infections as the disease progressed. We had been told that this type of cancer would develop into the most serious kind of leukemia if treatments were unsuccessful. Once that happens the white blood cells are so abnormal and unstable that it is difficult for the body to fight off disease. She was offered several clinical trials but refused to try them because of the risks and side effects which are usually worse in someone with a failed stem cell transplant.
So this is what we lived with for the next year and a half. She very gradually became weaker and weaker. She knew she could catch the flu or any number of illnesses and die if she came into contact with the wrong person at the wrong time. We knew what was coming. We talked about every aspect of dying. She wasn’t afraid of dying because she was a Christian. What she told me she feared was leaving me here without her. She was always thinking about me. You see, LeAnn had lost her first husband over thirty years before this. So she was no stranger to the thought of leaving this world. She wasn’t afraid to die. In fact, those of us who knew her best were sometimes shocked at how frank and open she was about death. But LeAnn had her fears, and one of them was getting a chronic disease and suffering for months before she passed away. That meant the main threat to her health, her life, and her sanity came down to one thing: should I be around other people?
How did she handle this dilemma? How did she deal with the fear of contracting an illness from an infected person? She was careful, but she never, ever had the first thought or expressed the slightest doubt about whether she should go to church. It was just a given that she would go. Why did she take that risk for such a long period of time? Part of it was for her. She needed to be with God’s people. She craved the comfort and the encouragement. She spent time listening to preaching and singing on the internet but that couldn’t take the place of being present with other Christians. That’s how God made us. We need to be with others, especially with other Christians.
But that was not the only reason she went. She did it for others. She had everything to lose by being around people at church, but for her it was more important to set a good example and encourage everyone else. In a way she was saying by her actions to them what she had said to me: “I’m doing this for you.” I used to say she was a walking rebuke to lazy, excuse-making Christians. Some people told her, “You don’t need to be around people” or “You shouldn’t hug those kids.” Others told her how much her example had encouraged them. But regardless of the advice given her she was resolute and never flinched in her determination to worship God with her brothers and sisters in Christ. If she caught the flu or some other infection, then her attitude was that God was looking out for her so she put her faith in His hands. She was not afraid of the worst case scenario—death. She was never a careless person, but her faith was strong to the end and that’s why she wasn’t afraid to go to church services. Once she politely texted a sister and asked why she and her family hadn’t been to church for a while. The sister explained that they didn’t want their children catching the flu. LeAnn was shocked. I went back through her text logs and here was her response:
“I hope you don’t take this wrong, and I can empathize, but I can honestly say if anyone has a compromised immune system it’s me.”
That’s pretty hard to argue with isn’t it?
People have said we shouldn’t go to church because the Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12 teaches us to do what is best for others and that includes looking out for their physical well-being. I believe she understood the Golden Rule far better than they do. She was looking out for everyone’s spiritual well-being and was willing to face her fears by her faith.
During this time countless saints prayed for her. She trusted in God and kept coming to services.
How did her life end? She didn’t catch anything. She never caught the flu. She didn’t come down with pneumonia. Even after she was too weak to come to church for the last few weeks of her life, she welcomed people into our home as she sat on the couch or lay in bed. People who had the flu knew not to come. No one coughed in her face. She didn’t drink after one of the grand kids had used a glass. We used caution without panicking.
I know that other cases are different. I am not suggesting that how LeAnn dealt with her disease should be the gold standard for everyone about how to deal with the risk of infection. But I must press this question: how can you explain the fact that she left this world just as she and all of us had prayed—without catching an infectious disease? Medical books won’t help you there.
So what would she think about this new virus? I knew her better than anybody. She would be appalled at the hysteria. She would be disappointed in some Christians. She would shake her head over the way Christians are so paralyzed by fear they don’t even have a sense of humor. She would be getting on to some of her fellow Christians for blowing this out of proportion. She would be outraged that churches are keeping members from worshiping together as a congregation. She would be angered that Christians are so afraid of dying that they can’t relate to Paul’s words: “to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). She would be scared to death that Americans in general and Christians in particular forget the words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” In short, I think she would cite Jesus’ words:
“Where is your faith?” (Luke 8:25).
-Kerry Duke, VP of Academics and Academic Affairs