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Dr. Suzanne B Merrill

Updated: Mar 27

After waiting for what seemed forever for answers, Dad received a phone call. It was from the Kidney Specialist team a few days after our ER visit, to schedule an appointment. He was anxious to meet with them and discuss his options, if there even were any. Up to this appointment, Dad had talked himself into believing that indeed, the resident doctors were correct in his demise. The phone call indicated urgency, so we scheduled right away.

We took the 55 minute drive up 897, to 419 through Lebanon, and connected to 322. At the appt, we walked into a room where we were greeted by a petite, kind woman who is the kidney surgeon on Hersheys Renal Cancer team. [Renal = Kidney] She showed us Dad’s scans from our prior trip to the ER and pointed out this “large renal mass”. It was indeed a mass…. A massive ball of aggressively growing cancer. When I say massive, this tumor filled the entire cavity of his left kidney, was growing outside of the kidney, upwards & to the heart where it was entangled around his inferior vena cava. She called this mess and blood clot thing an “IVC thrombus”. The inferior vena cava is the main heart artery pointing down out of the heart, and it delivers the blood to the bottom half of our body. At this point, he was definitely stage 4. After she explained the locations that the tumor is affecting in the body, we could understand where his symptoms were coming from. Horrific lower back pain, fatigue, high blood pressure, low kidney function, and shortness of breath. Were we so naïve to not think cancer or tumor? The pieces fit together once we saw this ravenous beast and we were beyond devastated. Doc started talking. We were listening carefully. She said “At this rate, this IS going to kill you if you do nothing. It’s too advanced for treatments. It will probably be a few weeks to a few months. This is very aggressive, rare cancer. We could arrange hospice for you awhile and we would suggest spending this time with friends and family.” I was holding my miracle, 2 and ½ month old baby Lydia as tears poured from my eyes and streamed down my face.

She continued.

“The second option is a very risky surgery to attempt to remove the tumor, along with the kidney that is engulphed, and if your body can tolerate going on bypass to graph the heart, you will make it though with a long recovery. We already talked with a few of the other surgeons since this would likely be a 4 surgeon surgery, and our schedules have to all get together to make this happen. We are predicting 12 hours from start to finish. We will have to completely open your torso from top to bottom, including severing the sternum, and depending on how bad the heart is entangled, put you on vv-bypass, or potentially stop your heart completely to do the work. This would be very, very serious. Last year I only did 1 surgery like this and you would be my 1 for this year. However, we either give this a try to give you time with your family or you go on hospice with a very limited timeframe.”

Wow.

I sat quiet with Lydia, staring at the floor. Tears still flowing. This is the end.

Dad started to mumble some words out slowly. “If there is no treatment, and it’s growing aggressively . . . with the pain I am currently in, I believe surgery is the only way. I love my girls and I want to try to fight for some time, if there is any.”

Dad asked Samantha and I what we thought. We both were on board with however he felt led, and decided we would support either decision. She said “We cannot wait long. We need to order you a few more scans, bloodwork and a heart test. I would like to operate before the end of the month.” He decided on the surgery and Doc wasted no time in getting a team together for it.

At this point Dad felt awful emotionally. Physically, he felt terrible, and his quality of life was dwindling. We left the hospital, mostly in shock but also in fear. This was going to be a really big deal. Doc really impressed on us the severity of this big deal. It was somewhere in the first week of August. I was stuck inside my head with worry.

What if he doesn’t make it through the surgery? Wouldn’t we rather have the few months left in the comforts of home? What if they open him up and decide that it is too risky and don’t continue? They just zip him back up. All the anticipation and 24 inches of stitches for nothing? Will he recover and have the time she is saying we will have? What will that time look like for our family? Quality of life? Is their treatment post-surgery? Is it worth it?

We spent the entire month of August making preparations. Dad made an appointment for the auctioneers to come and list the farm for public auction. We started doing some clean up in the barn and had many conversations that, frankly, I felt entirely too young to be having at a fresh 26. Samantha came home from Florida for 5 days. She came to help make sense of getting things in order but mostly, to spend the time. We took family photos in the meadow at the farm with Dad, & Luna. That week, I felt The Lord speak to me and give me a simple phrase… “You have nothing but time”.

Me? Lord, lets talk about this. I have 4 kids and thousands of chickens. One of my dogs is usually having puppies and I have stuff to do! I cannot even imagine the laughter from the throne at my ridiculous thoughts. Listen to me telling the God of creation what to do.

These moments were the ones when life became real and raw. God was in my life, and it was evident. However, I truly thought I was directing my own play up until this train came and wrecked my show. You see, I wasn’t the director then, and I certainly am not now. The Lord was prefacing to me that I am indeed going to slow down, learn to cancel plans, change my schedule, and live life moment by moment each and everyday as we walked with Dad’s cancer. Praise God.

This is when I began my grieving journey.

As Samantha’s trip here in PA came to an end and she needed to return to Florida, I was struck. I knew in my mind that of course, she has to go back to her husband and current “home”. Lancaster County will always be home, but Florida is her space right now. I’ve had to come to accept the distance. BUT. What if Dad didn’t make it? I was distressed – beside myself - knowing this could be her last time seeing Dad. I took on grieving for her but also felt deep sadness to be without her again. It also never occurred to me that her traveling back to Florida could be anything but see you again, another time. What if something happened to her in between now and then? I was starting to grieve life as we knew it but also feel the depth to our life here on earth. Many of us live as if every day is a guarantee. I believe it’s our culture and I don’t necessarily like it. We don’t often live with urgency. The urgency I heard from Doc about this aggressive cancer. I wish we felt that urgency in the gospel. “Have a good flight! We will talk next week and can’t wait to plan our next trip!” The truth is, we didn’t know if the next trip would be a visit to spend time, or - plan a funeral.

Off she went and out came my tears as I buckled up for one of the longest days of my life.

To be continued . . .


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