Wednesday’s Warriors: Joe Ungeheier

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NORTH TEXAS (CBS11) – It’s one thing to fight a deadly disease with all you have. It’s another thing to do that, while also giving others your energy and insights who are in the very same fight.

That’s exactly what this week’s Wednesday’s Warrior is doing.

These are the first words Merlinda Chelette shared in a recent conversation with Joe Ungeheier.

“I got diagnosed four years ago, it was August 24, 2012. I’ll never forget that day,” said Merlinda.

Merlinda is opening up to Joe and Erin Ungeheier, two people she had never met, about her very personal, four-year battle against the same cancer he will now fight.

“Initially it was surgery, you have to have your kidney taken out, and I had to have back surgery, which was pretty intense,” said Merlinda.

X-ray of the tumor in his right kidney (Ungeheier family)

X-ray of the tumor in Joe’s right kidney (Ungeheier family)

This meeting, is part of a new advocacy effort at UT Southwestern’s kidney cancer program. Merlinda is one of the first patients to turn advocate, to share with others who get diagnosed, what’s ahead.

Joe, a husband and father, found out the day before Thanksgiving.

“The report came out and it was renal cell carcinoma,” said Joe.

I watched Merlinda nodding a lot in the affirmative during this meeting between them. She knows exactly where Joe and Erin are.

“Everything you dream about, your future, you feel so shattered.”

For Joe, it’s the thought of the fight, of possibly not being there for his wife and his beautiful daughter. It’s a thought only someone who has faced this fight can feel. None of us can even pretend to understand, and for Erin, a hard fight that begins with her thoughts and emotions.

“It’s been very hard. I’ve been in shock. I think I still am. It’s hard to wrap my head around, but trying to stay strong, and just doing everything we can to make sure he gets the right treatment.”

The conversation between Merlinda, and the former Coast Guard rescue swimmer, and daddy to Elsie, covers everything from what treatments to consider, the good days to expect, and the bad. Even the role faith may play.

Joe as a rescue swimmer in the coast guard (Ungeheier family)

Joe as a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard (Ungeheier family)

“This happened and I think it has definitely strengthened my faith in God, and I have awesome support from my church and my family.”

To walk down a cancer road blindly is hard, to have someone help light the way can make a big difference in the eyes of the man who will spearhead Joe’s fight.

Dr. Hans Hammers is the co-leader of the kidney cancer program at UT Southwestern, which formed in 2013.

“I think to meet somebody, who has been diagnosed four years ago, doing relatively well, who can share personal experiences, some of the drugs patients are going to go through, come in contact with, have certain side effects with, I think it’s invaluable,” said Dr. Hammers.

Southwestern’s kidney program is now loaded with more than 20 highly skilled physicians, and more than 40 scientists who are working daily to help people just like Joe and Merlinda.

family pic Wednesdays Warriors: Joe Ungeheier

(Ungeheier family)

In 2016, the program earned the highly competitive “SPORE” award.  SPORE stand for Specialized Program of Research Excellence.

It’s given by the National Cancer Institute, and UTSW is only the second institution in the nation to earn this distinction.

Kidney cancer has no real early detection methods. It’s not easy to treat. 60,000 people in the U.S. will be diagnosed this year.

Joe is now one of them. He will begin an aggressive course of treatment within days.

Joe, Erin and Elsie still plan to take a small holiday trip to be with family to try their best to enjoy this Christmas. A Christmas that they will never forget, for reasons they wish they could forget.

 

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