What felt like the flu turned out to be something more final. And for Arvada dad and grandfather Gerry Gallick, the prognosis shook up his life.
But faith kept him steady.
“I’ve always been religious,” said Gallick, who has Erdheim-Chester disease, an ultrarare blood disease that affects nearly 1,000 people worldwide. “My faith is like my anchor, my core center of strength, because when you lose all you have that’s really all you have.”
Like others diagnosed with a terminal illness, Gallick is fighting back with faith, which depending on the person can take many forms — faith in God, a higher power, themselves.
“If people are deeply rooted in a spiritual community or a have a strong spiritual leader, that’s huge for people in that moment,” said Frank Gold, chaplain at Lutheran Hospital in Wheat Ridge. “It’s grounding.”
Erdheim-Chester affects each individual differently.
Before his diagnosis in April 2015, Gallick began to grow weak, had consistent head and neck pain and constantly felt as if he had the flu. Doctors found multiple clusters of genetically mutated white blood cells — known as histiocytes — in his skull, nose and neck. A tumor had formed in his spine. These clusters caused painful pressure to grow on his brain and body. Shortly after his diagnosis, he had surgery to remove clusters from his head.
He immediately turned to his faith to help him know what to do and how to fight.
“I am fighting because I am giving others an example of how to finish well,” Gallick said. “We have adversity, and God gives us a backbone to lean on — and I’m going to use it.”
For the sick, their family and caregivers, having faith provides comfort in a bleak situation.
“Faith is one of those elements that helps them (patients) find meaning in their lives,” said Winn Allison, an associate chaplain at Lutheran who also works in a hospice center. “It’s a connection to God, Christ, Muhammad, memories of what was meaningful to them in their lives — it’s a source of peace.”
At local hospitals and churches, chaplains and pastors say when people are diagnosed with a terminal illness, their faith — however that may look for them — grows as they try to answer one question:
“What is life all about?”
During these times, Allison said, individuals go through several stages of processing and grief.
They review their lives, consider what more they want to accomplish to ensure their last days are filled with happiness and quality, Allison said.
“For most of my patients, if they fall away, it’s for a very brief period of time and they bounce back stronger,” said Dr. Douglas Ney, a neuro-oncologist with the University of Colorado Hospital at Anschutz who specializes in Erdheim-Chester disease. “When people approach this with a good support — either in their faith or outlook — the time that they have really becomes of quality.”
Over the past year, Gallick — whose time left is uncertain — has dedicated himself to making sure the time he has is filled with quality and, specifically, love, hope and compassion.
Through the treatment and education process, he said he has grown closer and deeper in his relationships with God and his family. He recently celebrated 17 years of marriage to his wife, Terry, and has had to move in with his family in Arvada from his native New England. The move, he said, gives him time with his children and grandchildren he might not otherwise have had.
On June 18, Gallick returned to his home in New England to try a trial medication that will hopefully help with pain and decrease the number of histiocytes affecting his body.
Gallick’s deep faith and determination helps his family stay strong, too, he said. A faith, he added, that will support them after his death.
“We’re all in this tornado called illness and I’m not getting out,” he said. “But, hopefully, they can get out and put the pieces back together.”