It's said life sometimes turns on a dime – and when it happened to Lee and Carolyn Honeycutt in the form of a life-threatening medical crisis the Ellensburg couple found unexpected caring in the Emergency Department at KVH Hospital.
Carolyn, executive director of the Ellensburg Downtown Association, and Lee, a former associate professor at Iowa State University who ran a web design company, are volunteers with Kittitas County Search and Rescue who share an active lifestyle and a passion for the outdoors.
Last December, Lee took a day off to snowshoe on Blewett Pass with their dog Dakota on a day so stunningly perfect he called it “the best day” of his life.
And then, life turned on that proverbial dime.
At a meeting in Roslyn on January 3, Lee struggled to read the words he'd written for a presentation. Driving home, he called Carolyn who contacted his doctor's office where a nurse advised her to have him stop driving and get him to the emergency department in Ellensburg.
There the couple met Dr. Kenneth Lindsey, an emergency room physician and the department's medical director. Lee has keen intelligence and a well-honed sense of humor. So does Lindsey. The two clicked immediately, bantering good-naturedly as tests were run.
Then, Lindsey's tone turned serious. The CT scan results concerned him, said Lindsey, who ordered an MRI. With the results in hand, he told them Lee needed to see a neurologist. “He wouldn't let us leave until he got things set up and he made sure we knew that he cared,” Carolyn recalls. “He asked us to stay in touch.”
A brain biopsy done in Seattle delivered devastating results. The diagnosis: glioblastoma multiforme level 4, a vicious brain cancer that reproduces quickly and is, in essence, terminal. Even with treatment to prolong life, glioblastoma tumors typically return and become harder to treat over time. Although survival rates vary, patients typically survive less than 18 months.
“It's the worst thing that could have happened,” Lee says. Carolyn recalls listening as Lee and the neurosurgeon talked, the gist of their conversation slowly sinking in. “I looked at the doctor and said, 'Is he going to die?'” she said. “And he said, 'Yes,' and then it hit me.”
Back home, the community embraced the Honeycutts. When Carolyn set up a schedule online for friends willing to help get Lee to and from daily treatments in Yakima, the slots filled in less than a day. To share Lee's journey, they started a blog on caringbridge.org. Lee wrote the first entry, posted in January soon after his diagnosis. In it, he recalled his proposal to Carolyn more than a quarter of a century earlier.
“I told her no life could be without tears but that most of ours would be from laughter,” he wrote. “That's been true for 25 years.” The importance of love, laughter and living life has been a recurrent theme in the postings since then.
While Lee has battled cognitive issues, weakness and other challenges, he works to stay physically and emotionally positive. “I was devastated. But at one point I realized he's not going to die today. Let's focus on life,” says Carolyn who encouraged Lee to resume walking and was at his side with another member of Search and Rescue when he climbed Manastash Ridge in July.
As for Lindsey, his initial encounter with them wasn't the last. When Lee suffered a seizure in April and landed in the emergency room again, Lindsey was on duty. The next day, off duty, he stopped by Lee's hospital room to visit. “He truly cares,” Carolyn says.
Born and raised in rural Montana, Lindsey knows that emergency rooms can be intimidating places. Personal experience shaped his own approach. “It's important to try to put patients at ease, decrease anxiety and create a connection,” he says. “I've had family members with serious illnesses and know what it's like to be on the other side of the fence. With Lee and Carolyn, we quickly hit it off. Lee has a wonderful sense of humor, we're of similar age and our rapport developed naturally, which helped when I had to give them this devastating news.”
Lindsey appreciates the opportunity to help guide them through a system he knows can feel overwhelming. “This is a touching story of a beautiful couple,” he says. “It's a life lesson about cherishing the moment and appreciating what you have and how quickly life can change.
“They've been a gift to me.”