Ray and Jean Churchill, Merrifield, have had a string of mishaps and health issues in the past dozen years that might have sent a lesser couple into a state of self-pity and woe-is-me. And who could blame them? Amazingly, this couple still peppers their conversations with words like "lucky," "blessing" and "thankful."
Jean, 54, said it was a bout with the flu in 1996 that probably started their run of bad luck. While treated for the flu that year, she learned she also had narrowing of the arteries. A blockage was located in the veins between her hips so severe that doctors were forced to remove her left leg.
"I lived in the hospital," she said of surgery and recovery in the Twin Cities. A couple of months after returning home, she called her husband into their bedroom to look at the foot of her right leg. It had turned a dark color. The couple knew what it meant. Another blockage. Another trip to the hospital. Part of an artery was replaced which, thankfully, restored her circulation.
Ray and Jean Churchill, Merrifield, talked about the string of health problems the couple has been through in the last dozen years and how they still manage to stay upbeat. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"The doctor told me if her foot didn't get any better that they'd have to take her other leg, too," said Ray.
That doesn't mean recovery was easy. Lack of use and time in bed necessitated that Jean have her Achilles tendon painfully stretched and to the formation of a pressure sore on her heel.
Jean uses a wheelchair most of the time to get around. She has a prosthetic but has such sensitive skin she can't wear it comfortably.
"She gets blisters from it," said Ray. "She doesn't wear it unless it's a special occasion."
The Churchills have four grown children, Everett, Tonia, Gabriel and Joe; nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"Sometimes the little ones like to get in her chair and buzz around in it," said Ray, describing a perk of Jean's mode of transportation.
Before losing her leg Jean had surgery on both of her knees.
She is a cancer survivor, too, opting for a total hysterectomy 20 years ago after the disease was found in three different places.
"I watched my grandmother have cancer. She was a big farm lady. She went from 250 to not even 100 pounds. I was done having my kids," she said about her decision to have the surgery.
Jean doesn't let the use of a wheelchair stop her from being, well, Jean.
"The one thing you don't tell her is she can't do something," said Ray. "My aunt said one day, 'Do you know what your wife is doing?' I said, 'I don't want to know,' and she said, 'She's standing on a chair, getting something out of the cupboard.' I said the best thing is ... don't look.'"
Jean took classes and received her high school diploma in 2003.
"She always said she was gonna do it," said Ray, "and she did."
"Oh, I had fun," said Jean. "I actually did enjoy it."
"I think she was teacher's pet," smiled her husband.
Unfortunately for Ray, 68, he has needed a cheerleader as often as he's been one.
"He's the one that's been at the hospital more lately," said his wife.
Ray has had three different stents put in his heart and lost part of his colon to cancer.
"I had a cancer operation in my throat, too, " he said. "They cut off part of the back of the tongue. That cancer operation, that was pretty painful."
"It still is," said his wife. "They took muscle and some nerve out of the right shoulder. It was a 14-hour bugger," she said of the surgery.
"It still bothers me," said Ray. "They took all of the lymph nodes out, too, so there'd be less chance of getting cancer again. It's not as bad with pain medication, though."
A run-in with the lawnmower earlier this year resulted in the loss of one of Ray's toes.
"I got stuck in a hole and the wheels were caught. I reached over to kick the front tire and the wheels came back and the blade got my big toe." His wife was in the house and didn't hear Ray when he yelled.
"I had to go to the deck and rap on the window. The ambulance came out but they decided it was a trauma deal and got the helicopter. They landed it right in the field out there," he said pointing to a clearing beside the house. "Got some blood on my new deck," said Ray, shaking his head.
Today the couple has new reasons to worry. What they call a "lucky accident" led to a sobering discovery recently.
When the water pump wasn't shutting off one day Ray decided to climb down the well to check it out. He fell down it instead.
"At first they thought I cracked my hip or something," he said. While at the hospital Ray learned he has two aneurysms.
"One is above the belly button and the other above that one. They're both on the main aorta before it splits," said Jean.
"If I wouldn't have fell down that well I wouldn't know about the aneurysms today," said Ray." That was kind of a lucky thing."
"It really ended up being a blessing," agreed his wife.
The couple is weighing the options for surgery and treatment.
"The location isn't ideal," Jean said of the aneurysms. "It's a good thing he's a fast-healer."
Twice Jean has been badly burned. Once in a jar mishap with a pressure cooker, another when a batch of split pea soup bubbled up on her. One time a physical therapist, who was at their home to work with Jean, ended up taking Ray to the hospital.
"I was downstairs and ran the tip of my thumb through the saw. My boys said they're gonna take sharp tools away from me. They say if I mess up again they're going to move me into town."
With all of the bad things they've been through how does the couple manage to stay upbeat? The buddy system works. Ray said only occasionally do their bad days coincide.
"Most of the time it's not too bad. She's pretty good at keeping my spirits up. She's tough."
Jean pipes up, "Let's just say, he said beings I made it through cancer he could too, which was a real good thing."
"You look around and you really do see a lot of people in a lot worse shape," said Ray. "When Jean was in chemotherapy, I asked her one day, 'How do you do this?' She said, 'Look around, there's little kids in here. Other people have it worse that I do.'"
And they keep an eye on one another, too. Like it or not.
"If I go outside and she doesn't hear from me she's hollerin'," said Ray. "And cell phones. I hate cell phones! She's always on me about taking a cell phone ... even fishing," he said shaking his head.
"Well, it's not boring," said Jean about life at the Churchills. "Nobody gets off scot-free. You've had your bad luck. We don't sweat the small stuff anymore. And we have some fantastic neighbors. They've been a real big help. You know you're never really given more than what you can handle," she said pausing. "But sometimes you do wonder if it isn't somebody else's turn."
SHEILA HELMBERGER may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5866.
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