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No more chemotherapy. It’s a decision Christian Mercer, 27 recently made with the guidance of his team of oncologists at IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
“Dr. Larry Cripe referred to this as a ‘pause,’” said Mercer’s father Dean Mercer. For Christian, it is a matter of time and he wants to make every minute, every second count.
So on June 14 at 5:59 pm Mercer and his fiancé Sydney Bell exchanged wedding vows in an intimate setting, inside the chapel at IU Health University Hospital.
“We originally planned to get married in October but when we realized how serious my diagnosis is, we decided not to wait,” said Mercer. He proposed to Bell in February. “She came home from work and I got on one knee and popped the question,” said Mercer. The Crawfordsville couple met four years ago on the job at Kroger. Bell had been working as a cashier and Mercer started out in the deli, quickly advancing to customer service. Their coworkers have hosted barbeques to raise funds for the couple and Mercer’s sister started a “GoFundMe Page” – www.gofundme.com/help-christian-overcome-cancer.
A month after Mercer proposed their lives drastically changed.
Four years ago he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, causing inflammation to his digestive tract, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss. In early March he ended up in the ER in Lafayette with severe bleeding. Other symptoms followed – high fevers, weakness. The symptoms were consistent with mono but they also hid something else.
By May he was admitted to IU Health Simon Cancer Center. The diagnosis was a rare but aggressive T-Cell Lymphoma – a type of cancer that develops in the lymph nodes and spleen. The Lymphoma Research Foundation reports T-Cell Lymphomas account for about seven percent of Non-Hodgkin lymphomas in the United States.
“The mono may have saved my life because it got me to the hospital,” said Mercer. Many hospital visits followed – some lasted for weeks. “Initially, when they stabilized me they said the T-cells looked strange. I knew right away when I saw the look on the doctor’s face that I had cancer.”
At Simon Cancer Center Mercer was to complete several rounds of intense chemotherapy that would attack the cancer. “My body was already weak from the Crohn’s disease and my immune system was already compromised so I only made it through part of the first round when I had a bad reaction and ended up in progressive care,” said Mercer. “His vitals tanked and it turned out he got pneumonia,” said his dad.
Christian is the youngest child of Dean and Rhonda Mercer. On a recent Monday, Dean Mercer celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary at the bedside of his son. “It is yours mine and ours. We both have children from previous marriages and then we had Christian together,” said Dean Mercer. His wife chose the name “Christian” based on the actor Christian Slater.
For years their youngest child wore his hair shoulder length, listened to metal, hip-hop and electric music, rode a skateboard and played video games.
Then he met a young woman named Sydney Bell.
“Honestly I knew I loved him the moment I met him,” said Sydney. “I’m normally pretty shy and even awkward but with him I was able to be myself.”
They went from friends to falling in love and two years ago bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Crawfordsville with a fenced in back yard. One of those rooms is a nursery decorated in an elephant theme. They enjoyed simple nights together watching horror movies and eating Christian’s famous grilled ribs.
With each hospital stay, the couple knew they were in for a long and difficult battle.
“After my last round of chemo they basically realized every time they do chemo we’re taking two steps backwards,” said Mercer. “Not only does my cancer keep coming back but the chemo makes me weaker and weaker. It was killing me as fast as the cancer.” His typical 140-pound frame dropped to 95 pounds making it difficult for Mercer to get out of bed or walk the hall but he was determined to exchange vows with the love of his life.
Hannah Todd, a social worker in the hematology/oncology unit reserved the chapel and within a matter of hours, Mercer was wheeled to the first floor of University Hospital. Nurse AP Schroeder stood by to offer care during the 10-minute ceremony. And while the couple was in the chapel, nurse Katie Schenk bought decorations and collected monetary donations from other oncology caregivers. When the couple returned to the unit, nurses showered them with rose petals and a congratulatory banner was hanging in the room. Case manager Tina Ayala made a card that staff members signed.
“It was very rewarding especially with a patient I’ve known for a longer period of time and then seeing them go through this phase of life,” said Todd, who has worked at IU Health since September of 2016. The Mercer’s wedding was the third she’s witnessed at the hospital.
Mercer shakes his head as he talks about the day – that included at least one stumbling block. The original officiant had to cancel at the last minute. It just so happened that Sydney’s great uncle, Tom Davis, who was also ordained was in the hospital dropping off a card to the couple. He agreed to perform the ceremony, witnessed by Christian’s parents and Sydney’s mom and grandmother.
“We teared up a little,” said Dean Mercer. “It was a very emotional time for us all.”
After the “I dos” the newlyweds were treated to a special wedding dinner arranged by the nursing staff and prepared by hospital catering service, Classic Cuisine.
“It was amazing and a great surprise to us – a three-course meal and a wedding cake too, said Christian Mercer.
With the guidance of his team of doctors, Mercer recently prepared to go home, get rest, and begin eating his favorite foods. His wife is expecting their first child on August 27.
“The best chance I have of making it to August is to stay off chemo build up my strength and enjoy my family who has been so incredibly supportive,” said Mercer.
“My goal has been to see the birth of my child. My first and only realistic goal is make it until August to hold my baby.”
--By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health. Reach Banes via email email@example.com.