Kristi and Mike DeCourcey are sun children of southern California, where movie sets and glistening beaches meet an unforgiving desert. Don’t get the wrong idea; neither lives a celebrity lifestyle.
Kristi, 44, grew up in the Hacienda Heights community of Los Angeles County and worked in finance for 21 years. The DeCourceys live in Alta Loma, where Kristi’s 39-year-old husband, Mike, was born and raised and where he works for a local company that builds Mustang superchargers.
The couple did not meet on a red carpet but at a Route 66-themed restaurant in 2002. The DeCourceys married three years later and now live with their two children – 4-year-old Michael and Julianna, who is approaching her second birthday – in the foothills about 40 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
A film critic might call the storyline of the DeCourcey's recent months a tragedy. However, the DeCourceys have come into contact with families from across the country and created deep friendships amidst live-changing events.
After experiencing fatigue and pain in her side, Kristi went to the doctor. In September 2010, she was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer – a disease more common among older women, not a mother in her early 40s. By the time doctors detected it, the illness had spread to Kristi’s lung and liver.
“They gave me five to eight months to live,” Kristi said.
Life started moving quickly. As the emotional toll of the diagnosis began to reveal itself, the DeCourceys had to schedule CAT scans, monitor Kristi’s health, and plan for their two young children.
“There were a lot of tears and a lot of uncertainty because I had no clue where to go and I didn’t know what to do,” Mike said. “I was getting very angry. I wasn’t supposed to raise two kids by myself.”
Friends and family offered the DeCourceys support. After working for the same company for two decades, Kristi announced her illness to her office and took a leave of absence. Coworkers responded with emails and gifts of support. They paid for an assistant to help around the house and sent so much food that Kristi had to ask for the donations to stop.
Although the response to the diagnosis quickly employed many relatives, Kristi said it was difficult for her children, Michael and Julianna, to comprehend the diagnosis.
“I didn’t go into much detail with Michael because he’s four,” Kristi said. “My daughter is just oblivious.”
When Kristi’s sister found Inheritance of Hope, an organization that provides retreats for families caring for a loved one with a life-threatening illness, through an internet search, Mike said he was too stressed to research the retreat. At first glance, talking about severe illnesses with strangers did not seem appealing.
“I was a little paranoid and a little petrified, but I told myself I would go for the memories and go for the kids.”
The DeCourceys flew across the country for the Jan. 7-10 Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat at Disney World. They met 14 other families, explored the amusement parks, and found comfort in sharing their stories.
“All my fears went away almost immediately,” Mike said.
The DeCourceys had little prior experience in group therapy settings but found guided opportunities to speak with others to be the most impactful experiences of the retreat weekend.
“Once we finished the first session it was amazing, and everyone made me feel so welcome like we were part of the family,” Kristi said.
Kristi and Mike became close friends with the parents of two young daughters similar in age to Michael and Julianne. Meeting others with such a similar background allowed the DeCourceys to share their pain and was helpful, Kristi said. The DeCourceys also bonded with Jennie Ellis, an Inheritance of Hope volunteer and mother of four children. Kristi describes her as a “personal assistant, chauffeur, and bodyguard all rolled into one.”
“My first impression was Kristi was so warm and just had a real loving spirit about her,” Ellis said. “She has a very calm presence about her even in the midst of what she was going through.”
After meeting them on the first night of the retreat, Ellis ushered the DeCourceys around Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, scooping up tickets for rides, fetching snacks, and pushing Kristi’s wheelchair.
“They treated you like you were a king and a queen. I got so close with the volunteers, it was like you were lifelong friends,” Kristi said.
The retreat ended on a Monday, but the DeCourceys stayed at the Disney World resort with a few other families for two extra days to unwind. Kristi and Mike had dinner with Ellis and her husband and promised to stay in touch.
“I felt like I’d known her for a very long time even though we’d only been there for a few days,” Ellis said.
After tearful goodbyes, the DeCourceys went home, leaving behind close friends from across the country. Each retreat participant received a contact list of volunteers and participating families, and the DeCourceys still regularly talk with Ellis and friends they met three months ago at Disney World.
As normal life resumed in Alta Loma, Kristi and Mike could call on tools and friends from the retreat at times of need. Inspired by the relationships she made at Inheritance of Hope, Kristi said she has made it her mission to educate other friends and family about her illness.
She also now has lasting memories to provide her children, including a Legacy Video speaking to Michael and Julianne filmed during the Inheritance of Hope retreat. She said she enjoyed the opportunity particularly after experiencing her father’s passing 13 years ago.
“I would have loved to have his voice on tape or the written word, but we don’t have any of that,” she said. “It should be something everyone should do, especially if you have kids.”
The DeCourceys ultimately decided to attend the Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat for their children, and Kristi said she has seen an impact on 4-year-old Michael, who participated in group activities with other kids.
“I feel more comfortable talking to him,” Kristi said. “He’s more accepting now because after speaking to the counselors, he was exposed to other people who have sick parents.”
Since the initial diagnosis, doctors have given Kristi encouraging updates. Each test since September has indicated that her tumors are either shrinking or stabilizing in size. She has good and bad days, Mike said.
The months since the retreat have been tough for Mike as caregiver and husband. He said he still feels the anger of the diagnosis, but the retreat gave him resources to address his emotions. Mike said his longtime coworkers have told him that he seems to be coping well.
Yet these days are also filled with anxiety. Doctors estimated his wife would live five to eight more months; April is Month 6.
“I came back with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of worry, but I was calm,” Mike said. “The retreat let me know that I wasn’t alone, that people are going through it, that you’re not the first and you’re not going to be the last. I don’t know how I would be right now if I didn’t go.”
A screenwriter could not compose a Hollywood script of the DeCourcey's lives. For the small family from southern California, the goal is simple.
In Mike’s words, “You have to live every day of your life with your family to your fullest.”