College students often wonder what the future will hold for them – from the job they will find to the place where they will live or the family they will have. For Michael and Julia (Neal) Gardner, this future has been nothing like they expected.
Michael graduated from Cedarville University in 2014 with a degree in mechanical engineering, and he and Julia got married in the summer of 2015.
Julia started school at Cedarville in 2012 as a pharmacy student, but she is not currently enrolled. Less than two months after she and Michael were married, Julia was diagnosed with cancer.
In August 2015, Julia started to notice that she was feeling exhausted doing everyday activities. After comments from several family members about how pale she was, and with the increasing exhaustion she felt, Julia went to see her doctor. The doctor told her that her blood levels were low and she needed to increase her iron intake because she was anemic. But after a few days of taking iron, Julia’s health wasn’t improving. She had blood work done and continued with her normal life, which at that time included pharmacy orientation for the start of graduate classes at Cedarville.
Julia’s exhaustion continued to increase to the point where she had to stop multiple times when walking from one building to another on campus in order to avoid passing out. Her heart was beating nearly twice as fast as usual, causing her to feel not only exhausted but anxious as well.
Finally, at the urging of friends and family, Julia and Michael went to the emergency room. After many tests, they were given a diagnosis the next day: leukemia.
“He said, ‘You have leukemia. You need to choose where you want to go next.’ But he was very dogmatic about it,” Julia said. “We were sobbing.”
The following week, instead of starting classes at Cedarville, Julia started chemotherapy treatments at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. She spent a month there for her first phase of chemotherapy, and she has made countless trips there in recent months for various phases of treatment, which will continue until December 2017.
Being at the hospital so often for treatment has posed a significant challenge for the couple as well. Julia lives with her parents much of the time now, who live closer to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital than she and Michael do. But because of his job, Michael lives in Cedarville during the week.
“That’s probably been the most difficult for me – being away from everything that’s going on,” Michael said. “I don’t feel like I can do as much from so far away.”
Comfort in the challenges, blessings in the battle
In addition, the physical aspects of life have been challenging for Julia. She said she has had to learn to rely on others much of the time, even for seemingly simple tasks like opening a door or walking down the stairs. She said this has not been easy nor has missing school.
Instead of spending time studying or working on projects for classes, Julia said she keeps busy with other activities like knitting, reading and watching TV.
Despite the frustration that all of this can cause, Julia has seen the positive side of it as well. Having fewer commitments and no schoolwork has allowed to her spend much more time and effort growing closer to God, she said.
“It’s been really good to refocus my life,” Julia said. “And another thing that’s been really cool to me is how I’ve seen God work through me, which I hate saying because it feels like I’m priding myself on something but it’s so different than that.”
Michael said Julia’s positive attitude, despite her pain, has had an impact on the medical staff she interacts with when she’s at the hospital. Julia’s mother, Holly Neal, said she has seen this as well.
“The nurses love it when she’s assigned to them,” Neal said. “Jesus is evident in her life.”
Though battling leukemia was unexpected and has not been easy, Julia said God has provided blessings even in the pain. One of these blessings has been flexibility for Michael, his parents and Julia’s parents so that they can take the necessary time off work to be with Julia when she’s in the hospital.
Another blessing has been the support so many people have shown for Julia and Michael.
During her first month of treatment at the hospital, Julia said, they received countless cards and care packages. She and Michael have been encouraged by support from family and friends, various churches, the pharmacy department at Cedarville and even people they have never met. Julia said the prayers of all these people have been one of the biggest sources of encouragement.
Julia and Michael started a prayer map to mark the locations of people who they knew were praying for them. The couple asked that people continue to pray for them and for other families also battling cancer.
Neal said Julia and Michael have been an incredible source of encouragement for her through this experience.
“It’s been really wonderful to see God work in their lives and to see their trust,” Neal said. “There were a few tears when Julia was diagnosed, because it’s a shock, but within a few days she was done with the tears. ‘This is what God has given me to walk through. This is what we’re going to do.’ And Michael has been the same way. Their strength has been amazing to us.”
Julia said that as the family saw God blessing them and providing comfort, the family sought to give back and do something for the other patients at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
They decided on a project they called “Julia’s Jammies.” Many patients come to the emergency room and end up staying much longer than expected, so they are left wearing the hospital gowns, Julia said. This project was able to provide comfort for those families by addressing that practical need.
Through the donations that came pouring in, Julia’s Jammies provided over 500 pairs of pajamas to patients in five different hospitals.
More than anything, Michael and Julia and their families said they appreciate prayer as they keep fighting this battle with cancer over the next year and a half. They know it won’t be easy, but they’re hopeful and trusting God each step of the way.
“You know, this is hard,” Neal said. “But God is for us, and God is still good.”
Michaela Carpenter is a freshman intercultural studies major and a reporter for Cedars. She loves to travel and spend time with family and friends.