The hay wagons behind Dwayne Scheidel’s farm house sit empty. At age 69, he has experienced his last harvest.
As seasons go, alfalfa will sprout again this spring. But barring a miracle, Dwayne won’t be here to see it.
He and his wife, Terri, have sold their horses, chickens, and traded in pretty much their entire way of life. The barns are empty, too.
Dwayne sits on a leather couch in his Comstock Park, Michigan, farm house, surrounded by reminders of how life used to be.
His cowboy boots? He’s traded them in for cozy slippers. Instead of a heavy-duty barn jacket, he dons a fleece blanket to stave off the chill. The chill of cancer.
It’s ironic almost. Dwayne spent some of the best years of his life raising thoroughbred race horses, always with the goal of crossing the finish line first.
And now, he’s preparing for just that. To cross the finish line. The one from which there is no return, no next race.
Dwayne is dying of cancer.
Doctors gave him 90 days to live. That was on Nov. 16.
His wife, Terri, hopes they can celebrate their 21st wedding anniversary together on Feb. 10.
He hopes to be there.
The gift of time
The way the Scheidels see it, he likely wouldn’t be here now had Spectrum Health Medical Group pulmonologist Gustavo Cumbo-Nacheli, MD, and cardiothoracic surgeon Geoffrey Lam, MD, not developed a new airway stenting program last year.
Dwayne and Terri are eternally grateful for these days, days they may not have otherwise had together.
Through the Spectrum Health Interventional Bronchoscopy program, Dwayne underwent airway stent surgeries in August and December to allow air to flow to his right lung. Basically, a cancerous tumor was cutting off air flow to his lung, greatly diminishing his breathing capability and quality of life. The stents opened the airways.
“Before the (first) stent, he couldn’t breathe and he couldn’t walk,” Terri said. “He could hardly get up off the couch. Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli went in with a scope and he could see (Dwayne’s airway) was blocked by the tumor. He said, ‘We have to open that up, or it’s going to kill you.’”
Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli said partially removing Dwayne’s airway tumor and placing the stents improved Dwayne’s quality of life and added longevity based on his tumor and clinical condition.
“He was able to enjoy one more Christmas and New Year’s with his family,” Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli said. “Since the stents were placed, he has survived beyond his anticipated life expectancy.”
Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli said prior to launching the interventional pulmonary program in January of 2016, patients with advanced cancer or complex airway abnormalities were either transitioned to hospice for end-of-life care or transferred to facilities far from home.
“Now, we provide them with a viable, safe, effective and convenient alternative,” Dr. Cumbo-Nacheli said. “We were able to build a program from scratch to become one of 30 programs in the country that provide cutting-edge technology and service for this patient population.”
The stents added quality to Dwayne’s final months.
“He understands that there is no treatment that will prolong his life or cure his advanced lung cancer, so the most important thing to him is spending quality time with his family and friends,” Dr. Lam said.
Dwayne was an active guy. He traveled the state racing his horses. He worked full-time in the automotive industry. He and Terri built their dream home 11 years ago, on the former site of his grandparents’ home, where he worked the farm as a youngster.
He always was part of this land. But perhaps he has never appreciated it more. Each day seems a blessing. Each day, one more than he had before.
‘Trying to make me comfortable’
Over four decades, as Dwayne tended to horses, and fed chickens, he smoked. It’s what farm boys did back then. Pursing lips around a cigarette became as much muscle memory as slinging heavy hay bales onto passing wagons.
About three years ago, he developed pneumonia. Then within the year, he had pneumonia again. Maybe a third time, even, or it felt like it, he can’t quite remember.
During a January 2016 chest X-ray, cancer reared its ugly head. Dwayne was diagnosed with non-small cell carcinoma. Lung cancer.
“I went through chemo and radiation and they removed some more cancer they found in my brain,” Dwayne said. “The stents really helped. But there’s nothing more they can do. They’ve tried everything. They’re just trying to make me comfortable.”
Sitting on his couch, warm slippers on his feet and a blanket around his torso, Dwayne talks about his prognosis. And his brother dying of cancer just a week prior.
“The thing that’s amazing is on Nov. 16 they told me I had a maximum 90 days to live,” Dwayne said. “Nothing has been much different. I’m maybe a little weaker, but not much different. But I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like when you’re dead.”
Dwayne is realistic. He knows smoking cigarettes caused this. But he’s not wallowing. And he’s not making excuses.
“I’m not a negative person and I’m not afraid to die because I’ve accepted it,” Dwayne said. “You don’t want to walk around feeling sad all the time. I don’t feel as bad as I thought I would.”
Terri said after the first stent, she and Dwayne were able to escape for a mini vacation.
“He was doing so much better that we took a weekend and went up to Traverse City,” Terri said.
Dwayne is also able to get out most every day to take their rescue dog, Brooklyn, for a ride.
As Dwayne backs his dark green GMC pickup truck out of the garage, Brooklyn comes running. Dwayne opens the door and with black tail wagging, the dog jumps in.
“I talk to her about things,” Dwayne said. “Kind of what’s going on. She gets really sad sometimes.”
Dwayne and Terri are convinced that their dear furry family member of nine years knows Dwayne is dying. She jumps up on the bed and cuddles next to him, something she never did before her master grew ill.
“She’s up there as soon as I get out of bed,” Terri said. “And when he’s on the couch, she lays on the floor next to him. She sticks with him pretty close.”
Just as Terri sticks with Dwayne.
She’s working from home more these days, because it’s harder for Dwayne to be alone.
She cuddles with him on the couch.
“I love you,” he tells her, as she drapes her left arm around him and rubs his left shoulder.
“He’s the strength for me,” Terri says, looking into her husband’s eyes.
“I try to be, but it’s hard now,” Dwayne says in a hushed voice.
With one hand, Terri tightly grasps her husband.
With the other, she wipes away tears, wondering what life will become without him.
“I love you, too, babe,” she says, kissing his forehead.