Cancer patient gets last wish at Elkhart General

Wendy Bleile anxiously waited near the oncology unit family room wearing her wedding gown. The afternoon had been a whirlwind she never anticipated. Yet there she stood in her sleeveless satin-and-lace dress, folded over and safety pinned at the shoulders, several inches of the gown dragging on the floor beneath her feet.
Slowly a wheelchair rounded the corner. Mandy Hawkins, RN, brought Dave Bleile down the hallway. Wendy felt relieved to see him wearing one of the black button-down shirts she bought him during a very quick stop at a store that day. Never mind the big creases across the front, or the tubes and lines that hooked him up to portable machines and monitors.
Nothing was perfect, yet everything was perfect.
Her dad was there.
“It was very emotional and a moment I will never forget,” Wendy says.

Dave stared at his daughter the evening of March 5, seemingly trying to make sense of what was happening. This didn’t look like the early Easter celebration the family had been talking about. Besides the fancy dress, Wendy was clutching a bouquet of yellow daisies and her daughter, Lucy, stood by her side holding a basket filled with red rose pedals.

The 4-year-old, who was best friends with her grandpa, looked up at her mom.
“Tell him why you’re wearing your wedding dress, Mommy,” Lucy said. But she didn’t wait for her mom to respond. She spilled the secret to her Papaw. “Mommy and Daddy are getting married,” she told him. “We’re going to be a family.”
The nurses carefully pinned a yellow rose boutonniere to Dave’s shirt. Wendy walked over to her dad. He leaned to the side of the wheelchair, wiping tears from his eyes. He held the tissue over his face, overcome by emotion at the realization of the moment. This was really happening.
Before he died, his final wish was about to come true.
“Dave told me that his goal and his dream was to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding,” Dawn McCandless, oncology case manager and navigator, said. “There are so many times health care providers feel powerless to do things for our patients, when cancer is winning. But this was something we could do.”  

Especially given the circumstances. 
Dave went to the Elkhart General Emergency Room two days before Christmas, thinking he was having trouble with his gall bladder. Instead, doctors found a grapefruit-sized tumor wrapped around his right kidney. The news was difficult for the family to comprehend. The following day, Christmas Eve, Dave was told he had Stage 4 kidney cancer. Further testing detected the cancer had spread to his lungs, sternum and lymph nodes. His family was in shock, devastated.

“I remember the day he came in and first got diagnosed,” said Brittany Connelly, secretary assistant. “And I remember Christmas Eve, when they told him it was cancer. And then how fast it had grown, it breaks your heart.”

But Dave was not a quitter. He was determined to beat his cancer. But a large blood clot found near the tumor delayed Dave’s plans to schedule surgery to remove his kidney and start radiation. He had been in and out of Elkhart General ever since.
His pain worsening, Dave was finally admitted to the hospital. He could no longer sit up without tremendous pain in his back, where the cancer had spread. Nurses saw a change in his coloring and his mannerisms the weekend before the wedding. They said he struggled daily knowing what to do: keep up the fight or go home to spend his final days with family.
“He accepted God as his savior, and he had been talking about the level of peace he had reached with most people who came in his room and stayed long enough to listen,” said Kim Greising, RN, director of nursing.
Kim’s husband had died of cancer. “So I know what it’s like to have a loved one be scared of the unknown, and then find peace, with the reassurance Christ gives us, when we understand He has plans for us,” she said. “I had conversations with Dave about this and prayed with him.”
Dave told his nurses he didn’t know if he’d live to celebrate the early Easter holiday. On March 5, he decided he could no longer battle the cancer. He wanted to go home with hospice care. But before he’d leave the hospital, Wendy asked the nurses if she could bring in her wedding dress, because she wanted him to see her in it before he died.
But the Elkhart General oncology team wanted to do more than that for Dave. But they didn’t have much time.
They paged Dean Heisey, coordinator of spiritual care, and asked if he had plans that evening. He said he could officiate. 
Brittany ordered a cake and flowers. The nurses found a single strand of white Christmas lights in a desk drawer, and with white tulle and other decorations Dawn ran home for, they created an altar in the family room. They hung a sign on its door, reserving it for the night.
They laid four white hospital bed sheets on the floor and secured it down with white duct tape they ran out to buy and were lucky enough to find. Esther Rodriguez, CNA, came in on her night off because she didn’t want to miss the special event.
Four hours later, everyone was ready. And they were ready for Dave.
“I knew we needed to do this,” Brittany said. “To have his dream come true. That’s all this man wanted, to walk his daughter down the aisle. I knew he would love that.”
From the moment the family room doors opened around 7 o’clock, and Dave started down the aisle with his daughter, everyone had tears in their eyes. Everyone except Dave.
“As soon as he got through the doors and started up the aisle, he was looking around like, ‘Wow,’ and looked so proud,” Brittany said. “He tried so hard to be happy, but we all knew he was in so much pain. I cried tears of joy, tears of sadness.”
Dave watched as Wendy married Colin Bontrager in a short but emotional ceremony.

Then the nurses cleared the room to make room for Dave’s bed. He needed to lay back to ease the pain, every now and then closing his eyes to rest.
“You could see him grimacing, but he was determined to stay seated during the ceremony,” Dawn said. “If he wouldn’t have been in so much pain, and on so much medicine, I think he’d have physically tried to stand up and walk her down.”
The grandchildren, Lucy and 5-month-old Henry, went home after awhile, but the rest of his family stayed the night. Dave went home with hospice care on Tuesday.
As he was leaving the hospital, Kim handed him an 8-by-10-inch photo frame with a collage of pictures from the wedding. Images of moments he shared with his daughter. She hoped it was something he could keep at his bedside, to remember the magic and the love, especially the love. 
He thanked them and smiled as he left the hospital. And he went home.
Dave died two days later at Wendy’s home.
“Surrounded by people he loved, my dad lost his battle to cancer. I miss you so much already,” Wendy wrote on her Facebook page the morning of March 8.
With the post, she included a single photo that shows her kissing her dad’s cheek in the hospital corridor.
The nurses and staff at Elkhart General who were closest to Dave mourned the loss of their cancer patient.
“Bless his heart,” Brittany said, sorrowfully, upon hearing the news. “We knew it would be fast. I’m so glad we could give him his final wish.”  
This is what oncology nurses do.
“They look to fill the dying wishes of our patients who are end of life,” Kim said. 
“Sometimes they want to see a family member they haven’t seen in a while. Sometimes there’s one last place they want to visit with family members. It might be that they want to be at home, surrounded by family. Our nurses try to find that one thing and make it happen. I’m so proud of them, because I know what they do every day makes a difference.”