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Simple pleasures take center stage after Navy veteran survives leukemia

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012, at 9:40 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at 2:31 p.m.

After Terry and Michelle Killman watched their son, Shawn, get married Tuesday night, they took pleasure in eating dessert first.

Dinner was heating on the stove.

But the white and chocolate cakes beckoned.

“Life is short,” Michelle Killman announced to the guests. “Eat dessert first.”

“We learned that the hard way,” Terry Killman chimed in.

That Terry Killman was able to see his son marry Megan Jackson at the Via Christi Inn was a pretty big deal.

The bone marrow transplant patient, brought back to life by his older brother’s donation of stem cells, sat quietly during the ceremony at the place where his family had stayed for weeks.

Like most weddings, the ceremony had a few hiccups.

The cellphone with the music for the ceremony ran out of juice right before, so people had to wait for the phone to charge back up. Eli Killman, the 5-year-old ringbearer, dropped the wooden box holding the rings. The minister, Larry Haney, a longtime friend of Michelle Killman’s, struggled a bit to untie the rings.

But no one cared.

“I didn’t think I would see my son get married,” Terry Killman said. “There for a while, I didn’t think I’d see my grandson get older.”

That tired saying about not sweating the little things?

You don’t when you’re Terry Killman or the people who love him.

Brother donates stem cells

A veteran who served in the Navy for 20 years, Terry became sick late in 2010.

That October, doctors diagnosed him with chronic myeloid leukemia. A medicine could make him better, but his body was resistant to it.

By December that year, worn down from what he thought was pneumonia, Terry learned the leukemia had progressed. He now had acute myeloid leukemia and was in something called a “blast” crisis, which Michelle said “is the last crisis for patients before they die.”

On Jan. 3, 2011, the Killmans’ 25th anniversary, the doctor called.

“You either start treatment tomorrow, or you will be dead by Friday,” the doctor told him, Terry said.

He began the next day at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis.

Within two weeks, he was in remission.

He took chemo that Shawn said looked like red Kool-Aid.

One of Terry’s three brothers, Vic, was a match for a bone marrow transplant.

That Vic was alive to help his brother was somewhat of a miracle, too.

Fifty years ago, Vic almost died in a car accident when, as a child, he went through a windshield, splitting his head open. He survived. Two of his siblings did not.

“That brother turned out to be my brother’s match,” Michelle said of Vic.

Vic stayed at Via Christi Inn, a sprawling brick home owned by Via Christi Health near its hospital on Harry, while he was recuperating. The home has 10 guest rooms and one studio apartment and is available for families whose loved ones are in the hospital.

Terry went through 28 blood transfusions. He was in the hospital for 31/2 months.

His blood type changed, he said. His DNA changed.

“I’m 100 percent my brother now,” Terry said. “I’m his identical twin, just six years younger.”

Thankful for each day

Terry is still recovering. He’s considered in remission, but he’ll be watched closely for a few more years to make sure his body doesn’t reject his brother’s gift to him.

The 47-year-old is retired now from the Navy. A former diesel mechanic, he is taking classes at Pittsburg State University to become a vocational teacher.

On Tuesday, while preparing for his son’s wedding, he had to visit the doctor for a pulmonary function test and chest X-rays.

Terry and Shawn like to hunt.

Terry said he went elk hunting recently and brought some of the meat to his doctor, Phu Truong, as a thank-you.

He said he watched as the oncologist turned to an intern and related everything Terry had been through, and the intern’s mouth dropped open wide.

Sometimes, he said, he feels guilty that he has survived when others he met at the hospital have not.

Patients such as Terry have a 40 percent survival rate if they make it the first 100 days, Michelle said.

Wedding location made sense

It just seemed to make sense for the wedding to be at Via Christi Inn.

Michelle called Via Christi and said, “I know this is going to sound far-fetched, but could we have a wedding there?”

Terry and his family spent six weeks at the inn after he got out of the hospital.

It became a second home for the Independence family.

“Everybody that’s here is experiencing something difficult,” Michelle said.

So on Tuesday night, sofas in the family room were moved to the “quiet room” to make room for chairs for wedding guests.

The big dining table was gussied up with candles and mirrors and sparkling fake diamonds and wedding rings.

The wedding colors were camouflage and lavender, a nod to hunting and the military. Shawn was in the Army and was about to go to Afghanistan when his father became sick.

Shawn wore the camouflage vest his mother sewed for him. Megan Jackson – now Megan Killman – wore a wedding dress that her mother-in-law made with camouflage accents.

The spitting image of his father, Shawn was relieved his father was there to sign the marriage papers.

“I had worried he wouldn’t be with us,” he said.

Punch was served out of a glass bowl the family found in the kitchen. The family tried to find a proper punch bowl the night before but couldn’t.

“The world’s not going to end because we don’t have a punch bowl,” Michelle said.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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