Husband Keeps Wife’s Legacy

Says her life and death should teach others to have colonoscopies

By Pamela Bond

Victoria Advocate

March 24, 2008

Despite working as a nurse for 42 years and encouraging her patients to have colonoscopies, Gerrie An Toellner never had one herself.

“She said how odd it was that she had not had one eariler, even though she worked in the medical field,” said her husband, John Toellner, 81, of Palacios. “She always put her patients first. She didn’t take enough time for herself.”

Doctors diagnosed Gerrie, then 67, with colon cancer that had already spread to her liver in January 2004, shortly after she retired as the director of surgical services at DeTar Hospital. She died on Dec. 30, 2005, but her husband said that she is still saving lives with her story even after her death.

“She told everyone she knew to get a colonoscopy,” John said. “No one escaped her words.”

John now does the same and wrote a letter to the editor published in the Advocate shortly after Gerrie’s death on the subject. Colon cancer affects one in 18 people, making colorectal cancer the second highest killer out of all cancers, but it can be prevented by regular screenings.

John, 73 at the time, and Gerrie, 63, first met in an airport in 2000, when they both took a trip to Germany to see the Passion Play. The two spent a week together and he called her when they were back in Texas to ask her to have lunch with him.

The two married on March 30, 2002, Easter weekend. Gerrie was widowed by her first husband, Perry Martin Lewis, and had three children. John had been married twice before but lost both wives, Janice and Dorothy, to a heart attack and bone cancer.

The first years of their marriage were happy. Both were retired, and they took trips and spent time with their families. But in December 2003, Gerrie started having severe pain in her side and found out she had cancer the next month.

“My doctors were not real encouraging,” Gerrie wrote in a note to her family found after her death. “One of my doctors would look real sad and say, ‘Gerrie, it’s bad, it’s real bad.’ I felt like he had just signed by death certificate.”

Despite surgery, chemotherapy, tests and doctors visits that filled the next two years, John and Gerrie made the most of their time. They went to weddings, family reunions, high school reunions and traveled, sightseeing and visiting relatives.

“We did more the last year than some people ever dream about,” John said. “If you know your time is limited, make the most of it. Some people sit and feel sorry for themselves.”

Gerrie was sent home from M.D. Anderson and received hospice care when doctors said they had done all they could on Dec. 12, 2005.

“She said she wanted to die in her own bed, and that’s what she did,” John said. “I reached over one morning and she was cold.”

Dr. Loren C. Ownsby, a gastroenterologist in Victoria, knew Gerrie and was saddened, but not surprised, when he heard she had been diagnosed.

“I see doctors with it,” Ownsby said. “People either don’t think it’s going to happen to them or they think that nothing is wrong if they don’t have symptoms. That’s woefully wrong thinking.”

It’s too late to cure colon cancer by the time someone has symptoms, Ownsby said. He sees or diagnoses colon cancer about once a week, even though colonoscopies catch the disease 95 percent of the time.

“That’s a part of the body that most people don’t want to think about and don’t want a stranger touching,” Ownsby said.

In her note, Gerrie wrote that because of her battle with cancer, she understood something she hadn’t before: “I think God was impressing on me how critical it was to put all my faith and trust in Him for my healing – not the doctors, the hospital, not the medicine. Only He could heal me.”

“We had it made, for older people,” John said. “We couldn’t ask for anything more.”

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