Benefit Sunday at New Richland City Hall

GRATEFUL — David and Kristine Johnson are grateful the New Richland Lions Club is hosting a pancake breakfast Sunday, Dec. 3 to help the family deal with expenses during David’s battle with cancer.

Contributing Writer

The New Richland Area Lions Club will be hosting a pancake breakfast and silent auction as a benefit for David Johnson of the Hartland area this Sunday, Dec. 3 from 7 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at New Richland City Hall.

David says he had been feeling tired and worn out for a long time - from Dec. 2015 to Feb. 2016 – before he went to see a doctor. “I really noticed it a month and a half before,” he says. He took a week off of his job at WFS (Now CFS.). “I thought I just needed to get some rest, because I was working long hours.” But even with a vacation from work, David didn’t feel any better. In Feb. of that year, his body filled up with fluid, and he finally decided it was time to see a doctor. David was diagnosed with Stage 4 rectal cancer with extensive liver metastases.

David has undergone a number of medical treatments since his diagnosis. At their first meeting, the Johnsons say the oncologist was “extremely concerned,” and canceled another appointment in order to expedite David’s first treatment. He was down to 130 pounds, but, because David’s liver was compromised, 14.7 pounds of that was excess fluid, which doctors pumped out. A month later, the fluid had accumulated again, and David had another 17.9 pounds of fluid removed from his body. On a third occasion, 6 pounds of fluid were removed, so that David could go on a fishing trip with his brothers.

David had to have a port surgically installed in his chest in preparation for chemotherapy. He says the worst part of having a port in his chest is wearing a seatbelt. “I usually put my arm over the seatbelt,” he says. “Last year it bothered me a lot, but then I had lost a lot of weight.”

In May 2016, about three months after he started doing chemo, David was down to 113 pounds. “It was hard to eat,” he says. David’s first dose of chemo was a very strong dose: FOLFOX 5 with oxaliplatin. “Usually they only do eight weeks,” says David’s wife, Kristine, “but they kept him on for 11 weeks because he was tolerating it well.” Every other Friday, David went to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for chemotherapy. According to Kristine, doctors infused David for 3-4 hours, and attached a pump, which he wore for the next 46 hours. Kristine detached the pump for him at home, because David’s fingertips were becoming too numb to do it himself. The neuropathy in his fingertips, caused by the chemo, began to concern doctors when it passed his fingertips; they decided to stop administering chemotherapy.

David’s hands don’t respond as well as they once did since chemotherapy. He relates, “Yesterday, I wanted to move my hand, and couldn’t.” David had to give a calf a shot, but, as he lifted his arm to replace the medicine on the shelf, his hand wouldn’t let go of the bottle. “I had to think about it.” Sometimes, he has trouble holding onto things. “One time, we got an ice cream cone coming home from treatment. I was eating it, and it dropped right out of my hand.” David caught the ice cream cone with his other hand.

The numbness in his fingers is about 95% improved, according to David, but his toes are all numb. He has had to learn to walk with constantly numb toes, which tingle as though they’ve “fallen asleep.” “It’s hard if I go down on the basement floor, where it’s cold,” he says. “I can feel the tingling more then. If I keep them warm, it helps.”

After 11 weeks of chemo, David was put on panitumumab for his maintenance plan, which he took from Aug. 2016 until April of this year. Then, he had to endure the side effects from his medication, which caused acne all over his body, for which he needed further medication.

“Then, his numbers began to rise again,” says Kristine, “so he was put on another regimen of chemo-cocktail.”

The Johnsons tried getting his treatments in Albert Lea for a couple of months, but this proved even more exhausting than driving to Rochester. David says, “We can go to Rochester, they’ll do the blood draw, we see the doctor, and I get treatment. Albert Lea kind of wanted me to come down Wednesday to do the blood draw, Thursday to see the doctor, and Friday to get treatment. It was hard for me to get ready every day. I’d rather do it in one shot […], even though it’s a little further to drive.”

Friends and family volunteered to drive David to Rochester, so Kristine didn’t have to take time off of work.

With severe liver damage, David has been unable to work since his diagnosis. “I can work for about an hour, and then I need a couple hours of rest,” he says. “Compared to how I felt when I was first at it I’m feeling really good. I’m able to take care of myself. I can drive to Hartland to get my coffee and my doughnut in the morning […], but I can’t go out to the barn and take a pitchfork and shovel it out anymore. I just don’t have the strength.”

The Johnsons have a hobby farm with a few animals, for which David is grateful; he says they have given him a reason to get up in the morning. “I go out and I have about a half hour of chores in the morning, but I can take my time now, since I don’t have a job. And a half hour at night.”

Kristine says that their daughters, and even their daughters’ boyfriends, have been a big help in cleaning out the barn.

“I can kind of go out and supervise,” David chimes in.

“It’s become a family thing,” says Kristine.

Their daughters have also aided their dad in learning how to eat healthfully. Kristine says, “When he first came home, our two daughters pretty much stayed out there during the day. They pushed food on him – healthy food.”

David says, “I had a fairly good diet, but I got off sweets.” The Johnsons also started eating a lot of green vegetables, raw fruit and organic foods.

“I attribute that to how well he’s doing now compared to being down at 113 pounds and not looking good at all,” says Kristine. That’s a big change, especially considering that, when he first went to the doctor, the Johnsons were told that, if they had waited any longer, David would have been gone in a month. “They weren’t so sure they could turn it around,” says Kristine.

“When I go to the doctors, they’re amazed how well I’m doing,” says David.

The prognosis now? “Well, it’s stage four, so it’s still considered ‘incurable,’” says Kristine.

The doctors hope they can contain the cancer for five or six years, but David is indomitable: “I hope to beat it, because that’s the only option I’ve got: to beat it.” Driving home from the hospital, David told Kristine: “I want everything positive.  I don’t want to hear anything negative. ‘Cause what is that going to help?”

David has learned a lot from other stage four cancer survivors in books and online about how to live a healthy lifestyle, including maintaining a positive outlook. He has learned how important it is to have something to look forward to, to plan something concrete for next week, next month, or next year. That’s why David planned a fishing trip up north with his brothers last June. “Next spring, we want to get sheep for Aubrey to show at the fair in August. […] That’s how everybody should live their lives,” says David. “It says in the Bible, if you don’t have a vision, the people parish.”

Regarding the fundraiser, Kristine says, “It’s been humbling going to businesses. They’ve been really good about donating. It’s the individual business owners that have been really generous. Corporations you have to go through a few more steps, but some of them have been great, too. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 2 ½ weeks.”

The Johnsons pay $1,200 per month in insurance, but they still have to pay a hefty deductible before they can get any help from the insurance company. “That’s what the benefit is going to help with,” says Kristine.

Individuals have been donating money and auctionable items, such as quilts, baked goods and crafts. There is a David Johnson Benefit account at the Farmer’s State Bank in Hartland, to which people can donate. There is also a drop-off at the New Richland City Hall for donated items for the silent auction and bake sale.

David says, “I would rather be able to work and not have to have a benefit, but I’m happy they are [hosting one]. But it’s humbling. I’m thankful that they are doing it.”

Come to the pancake breakfast and silent auction this Sunday, Dec. 3. Cost is $7 for adults, $4 for children ages 5–12, and free for ages 0 to 5. Donations are welcome at the door, and your presence is deeply appreciated.