Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Written by Elizabeth Swaringen for UNC Health Care
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Kathy DeClue waited 41 years to renew her wedding vows. A successful second bone marrow transplant gave her the chance.
“At our 40th anniversary on Feb. 5, 2012, I was too sick,” said Kathy, 58, of Trinity, N.C., in Randolph County. “This February I was in the 100-day, post-transplant stay in Chapel Hill. May 4 was the first day we could get everyone together.”
On that day at 2 p.m. Kathy walked down the aisle at her church, Midway Baptist in Jamestown, N.C., on the arm of her brother, Danny Hammed, 53, and before 80 family and friends, she and her husband, Harles, 65, recommitted themselves to each other for at least another 41 years.
“Nana, you are beautiful!” shouted Ethan Rush, 7, upon first seeing Kathy in the street-length ivory dress with peach-colored lace overlay, and then processing with his siblings, Hannah, 9, and Christopher, 13, down the aisle ahead of their grandmother.
Kathy and Harles’ special words to each other flowed with genuine ease. So did the tears of those present, especially when Harles spoke.
“I promise to love you and to tell you that I love you and show you that I love you for the next 41 years,” he said, holding Kathy’s right hand. “That promise will be easy to keep because God knows I didn’t tell you or show you enough in the last 41 years. You are a strong woman, and you kept our marriage together. I can’t promise you perfection every day from here on, but I can promise that I will try.”
Kathy’s oldest brother, the Rev. Butch Hammed, 57, of Roanoke, Va., officiated. “This is an amazing day because of where she was a year ago,” he said.
On April 25, 2012, Kathy received a stem cell transplant at UNC Hospitals to treat chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a cancer of the blood cells that required aggressive medical attention.
While three of Kathy’s six siblings were perfect matches for stem cells, her youngest brother, Don Hammed, 46, of Kernersville, N.C., got the nod.
“It was a no-brainer that I would donate the cells Kathy needed,” Don said, at the reception following the ceremony. “I remember thinking they harvested more than they needed for the first transplant, but the wisdom of that is the cells were there when she needed them the second time around.
“I always felt like the transplant would work for her,” Don added. “She is a person of faith and is always so positive, regardless of the challenge before her. If we had needed to harvest more of my stem cells, we’d just do it. It wasn’t painful.”
The first transplant went well, but not well enough. As Thanksgiving neared, Kathy was failing. “I didn’t know how sick I was,” she said. “I was worried, but I tried not to let it get me down.”
“We almost lost her,” said Rose Tucker, 61, of Roanoke, Va., Kathy’s only sister. “I remember falling to my knees and praying to God ‘Please don’t take my sister, my best friend.’ I knew her team in Chapel Hill would not let her die. They are the best, and I tell anyone who will listen.”
On December 5, Kathy underwent a second stem cell transplant. Again, she was released to SECU Family House for the 100-day post-transplant stay. The 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house is the ideal home-away-from-home for patients who may have daily appointments at the hospital or need immediate medical attention.
Again, Rose joined Kathy at Family House, slipping into the familiar routine of waiting for blood test results that showed how the transplant was working. But the second time around felt different.
“I just knew it was working,” Kathy said. “I had more energy, I ate better, I talked more. And I felt like planning for the renewal of our vows. I knew it was going to happen.”
By the time she was released to return home in late March, blood tests showed that the leukemia is Kathy’s blood was down to 4 percent. A month later, it was 1 percent. (Kathy received a boost of additional stem cells on June 13 as the leukemia count grew closer to 2 percent.)
“This is just the sweetest of days, especially considering all that has happened,” said Linda Hammed, 53, Butch’s wife, who directed the ceremony, and had visited Family House while Kathy and Rose resided there.
“I was amazed at the community, the support and the love I witnessed there,” Linda said. “I think it made all the difference for Kathy.”
“Chapel Hill gave her hope, and there was always a sense that they would never give up on her,” said Linda Rush, 38, Kathy and Harles’ only daughter. “By the grace of God, she’s healed, and everything’s OK.”
(The renewal ceremony was a true family affair. In addition to those participants already mentioned, Linda Rush and Rose were matrons of honor, and Kathy and Harles’ two sons, Keith, 40, and Josh, 22, were ushers and best men.)
“I’ve never thought the disease would take her, and I expect her to live forever,” said Don. “She’s the one who took up the family tradition of getting together for a weekly meal after mom and dad died. She’s always thinking about others and doing for them.”
And what one sows, one reaps.
“We’ve talked about her illness and treatment a lot,” said Cheryl Elliott, a friend of six years and a ringleader of the reception.
“I’ve survived three cancers, gallbladder surgery and a heart attack, and I’m still going,” Cheryl said. “I believe we survive health challenges to be present for others, to be the shoulder to lean on and more. Kathy’s a very special person, and she’s still here for a reason.”
“This has been a great day,” Kathy said, reflecting on the ceremony and celebration. “We were too nervous and too shy at our wedding. I was 17, and Harles was 24 and in the Army. I never dreamed we could be as close as we are. All that we’ve been through will do that. He would say the same.”
“I do,” Harles said.
To learn more about how to be tissue typed for the National Bone Marrow Donor Registry, go to http://BeTheMatch.org.