People sometimes ask Natasha Elliott how she manages to do it all: care for her ailing husband and 10-year-old son while pursuing a graduate degree in nursing. Natasha, 27, said those who don’t know Mike, her husband of six years, don’t understand their marriage and the ups and downs of battling life-threatening illness.
“This is our normal and I wouldn’t know what it would be like to be with someone who didn’t go to the doctor every week,” Natasha said.
Normalcy for Mike Elliott includes living day-to-day with symptoms that can limit his mobility and restrict his appetite. The 30-year-old husband who once trained to become a SWAT officer now weighs 120 lbs after mouth blisters prevented him from eating. He nearly went blind from cataracts. His physical appearance attracts stares due to a condition that causes skin rashes.
Mike was diagnosed with leukemia in January 2004. He underwent treatment and progressed toward remission, the reduction of cancer cells.
Natasha was working on her first nursing degree and interning in the oncology department of the hospital that was treating Mike. Although she never had her future husband as a patient, Natasha heard gossip from other nurses about the cute former baseball player in cancer treatment. Mike and Natasha met one day in the hospital hallway in May, began dating the next month, and were engaged by August. Mike had started chemotherapy, and his cancer was in remission.
The wedding was planned for March 2005, but Mike’s cancer came back in February. Two nights before the wedding, fever struck and Mike returned to the hospital, where doctors decided he would stay for the weekend. The rehearsal dinner was cancelled and the ceremony seemed to be in jeopardy as Mike rested in his hospital bed.
“I was very emotional and had said I didn’t want to get married in a hospital,” Natasha said. But at 4 a.m., Natasha changed her mind: “I said I’ll marry you anywhere, even if it has to be in your hospital room.”
Members of the church where the marriage would have happened decorated the small chapel in the hospital for the ceremony. Mike and Natasha married on March 12 in front of 25 people – the hospital chapel could only fit so few – and Mike immediately returned to his hospital bed as a husband and father of Natasha’s son Isaiah, who was 3 years old at the time.
“You have these people who have fairytale lives with pictures and everything,” Mike said. “We don’t have that, we have our faith that’s getting us through the whole thing. It wasn’t the dream wedding you think of, but it happened that way.”
Three months later, Mike underwent a bone marrow transplant necessary for his leukemia treatment. Doctors shortly thereafter diagnosed Mike with graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), a condition experienced by some patients who undergo bone marrow transplants in which transplanted cells attack the recipient’s immune system. Mike said doctors informed him that he would likely have GVHD for the rest of his life, although medical experts are still trying to learn more about the disease.
The GVHD diagnosis forced doctors to place Mike in what he calls a “solitary confinement” for three months. He was restricted to living at the hospital and prevented from seeing Isaiah, who could give his dad germs and make him even more sick.
“It was really hard from a relationship standpoint, especially because we had just got married,” Mike said. “If someone sneezed on you, you had a chance to die.”
Mike’s GVHD migrated from his liver to his mouth, where it caused blisters, malnutrition, and weight loss. After receiving treatment near the Elliotts’ hometown of Lakeland, Fla., Mike spent a year flying occasionally to Houston to visit a GVHD specialist at MD Cancer Center. Mike received special contact lenses from the Boston Foundation for Sight after he nearly went blind from cataracts.
“The last six years have been a roller coaster because at times he got way better and was mowing the yard and going to work and then all of a sudden he would go down and couldn’t do anything and would be depressed or anemic or couldn’t eat anything and would lose a lot of weight,” Natasha said.
Mike’s condition seemed to worsen this winter. He spent two weeks in a hospital near Christmas and was approaching liver failure.
The Elliotts attended the Inheritance of Hope Legacy Retreat Jan. 7-10 at Disney World, just down the road from their Lakeland home. They met families and volunteers from 13 different states, enjoyed a vacation in the park, and learned from others’ experiences.
“This retreat with these people was one of those answers to a prayer you never prayed,” Mike said. “It happened at the worst time in our marriage and in our lives and it happened at the perfect time.”
Natasha said she most enjoyed meeting other families close to her age who were dealing with terminal illnesses. Although she interacted with many cancer patients as an oncology nurse, it was different to meet peers in similar situations.
“To meet other women there whose husbands are sick and they’re having to take over their husbands’ roles like housework, working, and taking care of children was such an encouragement for me,” Natasha said.
The Elliotts’ son Isaiah also participated in the retreat and bonded with Corbin Hedges, a first-time volunteer and college student from Tullahoma, Tenn.
“I remember walking around the Disney playground with huge grass. Isaiah was so excited to go there, his face just lit up,” Hedges said. “You’re able to see so much of a positive impact on a family’s life.”
Hedges and the Elliotts stayed in touch after the retreat and reunited in Lakeland when Hedges was on his spring break from school.
“He literally was like a dad that I couldn’t be to my son,” Mike said of Hedges. “It was just unbelievable how they try to find ways to serve you, the only way I can describe it is we got treated like royalty.”
The relationships created at the Legacy Retreat have offered the Elliotts new perspectives on their situation. Isaiah met other kids whose parents are living with life-threatening illnesses and still asks how they are doing. Mike gained a new outlook on his disease from the testimonials he heard at the retreat.
“Now I see that even if I do live for another five years, I’m going to cherish every minute of it,” he said. “I can appreciate all of the things I never could before like taking a shower, being able to eat, having saliva in your mouth, so many things most people take for granted.”
Natasha’s role as Mike’s caregiver has been affected by her career as a nurse. Although her training helped Natasha administer at home care, she also understands the severity of Mike’s multiple diagnoses.
Yet, as Natasha nears completion of her graduate nursing degree, she also understands that there are other young couples like hers living with life-threatening illnesses. Natasha used to discourage Mike from using a wheelchair because it made him look different, but after meeting peers who use wheelchairs, Natasha said, “it looked to me like this is ok.”
“My faith is pretty strong that I’ve come to the point that God will give me the strength to go through whatever I need to go through,” Natasha said. “I’m done praying for God to heal him, I’m not worried about the future, I’m trying to take more advantage of the time I have with him right now.”
Natasha said she plans to run in an upcoming marathon to benefit Inheritance of Hope. Isaiah wants to know if he is old enough to be an Inheritance of Hope volunteer. Mike is expected to begin kidney dialysis soon.
“We would not know any different,” Natasha said. “That shows what our normal has become.”