The Only Thing Saving Their Hearts

By Seasons | December 16, 2021

MJ and Family

Our patient MJ, his wife Lauren, and two sons Rhett and Logan endured a sad and difficult time when MJ was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic renal cell adenocarcinoma. As MJ’s illness worsened and he was reaching the end of his life, our Delaware and Maryland care teams ensured he passed peacefully and left a loving legacy behind for his wife and two sons: Memory Bears made with MJ’s shirt that carried “his scent.” According to Lauren, the bears were the only thing “saving their hearts” when MJ passed.

MJ was a 39-year-old wonderful father of two boys, Rhett and Logan. He and his wife Lauren were soulmates, meeting years ago in college. They were known in their small town as one of the most beautiful couples. MJ was a phenomenal baseball player. His confident persona and larger-than-life attitude rendered him impossible to forget. Their lives were perfect, until they weren’t.

MJ and Lauren-1MJ started to have back pain, and unfortunately, chiropractic therapy did not help. So MJ had an MRI and it showed multiple lesions invading his spine. His diagnosis: Stage IV metastatic renal cell adenocarcinoma.

In his mind, both on and off the baseball field, losing was never an option. MJ immediately began aggressive treatment. He and Lauren explored multiple treatment avenues, including drug trials, chemotherapy, radiation, and even experimental treatment out of state. Despite his immense discomfort, he remained stoic for his wife and children – always a smile on his face, laughing, hugging, and making jokes. The community rallied behind MJ and his family in their time of need, holding multiple fundraisers and awareness events to show their love and support.

The family was devastated when he landed home in August from experimental treatment at the out-of-state treatment center. When he came off the plane, his decline was evident. Lauren knew it was the beginning of the end, but MJ was not willing to give up. He was hospitalized almost immediately after arriving home as he lost his ability to walk or breathe without oxygen.

MB 3All the preparation in the world could never equip someone with the emotional tools to survive this ordeal alone. Lauren lost her father to pancreatic cancer the year before and knew she needed help. Lauren was full-time caretaker for MJ and their two sons and ran their family business alone out of their home. She reached out to our Maryland site which soon gave her the ability - and space - to grieve the impending loss of her other half.

MJ spent time in our Maryland inpatient palliative care unit to manage his symptoms before transitioning home. Prior to leaving, our Delaware program ensured his legacy would continue long after he passed. The team came together to create one-of-a-kind Memory Bears made from one of MJ’s favorite shirts for both of his boys. The bears also included voice recordings that MJ made, specific to each child.

MB 1MJ came home and quickly started to make his journey into the next world. He was surrounded by his family, who lay in bed with him, cried with him, and comforted him until he died. His wife Lauren was cradling him in her arms when he took his last breath.

Since MJ’s passing, both Logan and Rhett have struggled to grasp the finality of death. Rhett asked the other day how his dad could call him if he did not take his phone to Heaven. Lauren responded that his dad would send him signs from the sky, including frogs (which Rhett loves), and maybe even a talking bear. Lauren had no idea that Abigail Jerden, the executive director of our Delaware site and a close friend of MJ, was planning on delivering hand-crafted, personalized Memory Bears that evening. When Abigail brought them in, Lauren held them and inhaled the fabric that still had MJ’s scent. She could not wait to deliver them to the boys that night.

The following morning, Abigail received the pictures you see here. That was one of the first times that the boys slept through the night, with their “dad bears” in tow. Logan has since insisted on taking his bear everywhere, including school and in the car. He straps him into his big brother’s booster seat so that he stays safe. Lauren said that those bears are “the only thing saving their hearts.”

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Although we are devastated by the loss of MJ, we are comforted in knowing that so many patients received, and will continue to receive, the love, honor, and empathy that he did. On behalf of his family, the Delaware team would love to thank every single person who cared for MJ, from the inpatient palliative care staff who cheered him out to his ambulance when he went home, to the Maryland team who comforted the family as he declined at home, to the Patient Experience staff who held Lauren as she wept at his bedside.

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Abigail shared, “This, right here, is why it’s worth it. All the work, the hours, the energy, the processing. This is why we are hospice. It is not often that one gets to witness such an act of selflessness. Every member of the Delaware and Maryland staff gave their whole hearts to this family, and it shows. We are grateful to have these people on our team.”

This story was shared by Abigail Jerden the associate director of our Delaware site and friend of the patient and his family. Special thanks to our Delaware team: Barb Cottrell, administrative assistant; Crystal Johnson, social worker; Fiona Robinson, director of Patient Experience; Casey Stradely, manager of Volunteer Services and Community Outreach.
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