Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop
Dave and Shari Smucker were stymied.
Nearly three years had passed, and it didn’t appear hopeful that Aaron, now 3 years old, would ever join their family in Harrisonburg. The couple had made several visits to the youngster’s home in Guatemala, and each time, some technicality prevented them from returning with Aaron in tow.
Meanwhile, life had thrown Dave another curve. A mysterious lump on his neck and lingering illness had been diagnosed as a rare form of lymphoma. The couple believes that “divine intervention” on the part of Rockingham Memorial Hospital oncology nurse Rita Lehman that Dave was still alive. Had he not gone at Rita’s urging to the RMH Cancer Center for additional testing the very next day rather than waiting another week until his scheduled appointment, “I likely wouldn’t be here today,” Dave said.
Due to the severity of his illness, the oncology staff went with an aggressive strategy, with Dave enduring eight rounds of grueling chemotherapy between January and April of 2006. He lost weight, his hair and his strength, but not his resilience, largely because, he says, “I felt the support of so many people” through the ordeal.
Dave’s parents, Ron and Mary Lu Smucker from Souderton, Pa., came to Harrisonburg to help with family care during his lengthy hospitalization, as did Sheri’s mother, Sara Hartzler, who lives locally. Community Mennonite members continued to pray and lend support, as did Dave and Sheri’s co-workers.
“My work colleagues told me to ‘just concentrate on getting better – we’ll take care of things here,” Dave said. “That was a tremendous gift.”
Following treatment, testing revealed that Dave’s bone marrow was completely clear.
“Dr. Robinson said, ‘It was sort of a miracle,’ and I’d tend to agree,” Dave smiled.
Now in remission, Dave was encouraged to visit a bone marrow transplant center in Richmond.
“The survival rate of persons with my particular illness wasn’t good, so we pursued this,” Dave noted. “A transplant was my best chance to knock out any cancer cells that might have survived the chemo.”
Part of the process included finding a marrow donor, starting with Dave’s immediate family. Two of his three siblings were a match, rare in itself, but the ideal is to have an opposite gender as donor, and his sister, Dorine Rosenberger from Pennsylvania, was that match.
Dorine came to Virginia for tests. In mid-August, the donation took place. Full-body radiation and a “massive dose of chemotherapy” were followed by the transplant procedure itself. Dave was confined to a hospital room for an entire month with limited visitation, then stayed in two Richmond area homes from September through December, 2006, returning to the hospital for regular tests.
Then, one unforgettable day near Christmas, the Smucker family received two gifts. Dave was allowed to return to his Harrisonburg home earlier than expected. On his first day home, the very first call that Dave answered was a long-distance call from Guatemala. It was their attorney saying that Aaron was approved to come to the U.S.
“This had to be God’s timing,” Dave said. “There’s no other explanation.”
Dave wasn’t allowed to travel, so Dave’s sister Dorine accompanied Sheri to Guatemala to get 4-year-old Aaron.
“Aaron knew we were coming,” Sheri said. “The foster parents did a great job with him, and he knew us immediately.”
The couple said that Aaron is “doing a great job of adjusting. He can speak some English, and he loves the snow,” which he’d never before seen.
“We definitely tried to wait on the Lord for strength and peace” throughout the ordeal, Dave said. “Things may not unfold exactly the way you want, but the waiting, as difficult as it’s been at times, was good for me.”
“This has been a hard journey for me,” Sheri declared. “I had lost a husband once before and faced the prospect of it happening again. The love and prayers of many people all along the way truly made a difference.”
Another blessing: Dave has been able to return to his computer work part time because he’s able to do much of it right at home.
But even now, certain activities remain off-limits. A new immune system is coming into play in his body, and soon he will receive a “new” series of immunization shots that he received as a child.
Although the transplant greatly improved the odds, he realizes that the cancer could conceivably return.
But meanwhile, Dave said, “I have renewed hope and a new future.”
Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.