This article is part of the “Caregivers of the Life Raft Group” series. The series focuses on the spouses, children, siblings or friends who walk alongside the patients in sickness and in health.
Gail and Tim Mansfield have enjoyed a lot in their retirement. Tim is always working on cars and doing jobs around the house. He takes walks with Gail almost every morning and rides his bike every afternoon. Gail keeps herself equally busy; she is an avid quilter and is currently learning watercolor painting. Since their retirements in 2000 and 2001, the Mansfields have made the most of their time at home and spend as much time as possible together.
Tim was diagnosed with GIST in July of 1994 on his 52nd birthday. Gail had to take him to the hospital due to flu-like symptoms. “He was in intensive care in the hospital and they couldn’t figure out why he was bleeding internally. They gave him several pints of blood. Finally, there was this really great surgeon who just wouldn’t give up. He said, ‘I want to open you up.’ He found a 9 cm. GIST tumor in his stomach.”
The tumor was removed and doctors sent the couple on their way. No one mentioned a follow-up. And Gail and Tim went on about their lives. Both enjoying their jobs. Tim used to build and maintain the large computers used to develop the new Intel processors. Gail worked in the reliability department of a large company that made test equipment, testing the durability of integrated circuits.
“I would build special boards and power [the circuits] up and put them in these special ovens,” Gail says. “We were simulating warm, moist conditions like the swamps of Louisiana and the climate of India, and we would see when they break and how they break. It was fun.”
Nonetheless, when they finally decided to retire, the two were happy to leave it all behind and devote time to each other. But in early 2004 Tim began to feel the flu-like symptoms returning. That’s when GIST started becoming very real to Gail.
“It’s the fear of losing him, of not having him there,” she says. “We’re very close, we always have been, we’ve done everything together. It’s the fear of loving somebody so much and seeing them die. He’s the only one who knows what it feels like. I try to feel with him and for him.”
The Mansfields didn’t know what was causing the sickness but they supported each other as best they could. “It’s always just been Tim and I, we have no children, and we have few friends,” Gail says. “We didn’t even tell anyone when the metastases came back. Our support system is just the two of us.”
They found solace in talking with each other about the situation. “We would sit on the front porch and talk. It’s hard. We don’t like to take our troubles to others, we’re very independent. So we talked to each other a lot.”
But as a caregiver it was hard for Gail. When Tim felt the pressures of sickness, he leaned on her. Gail had only Tim. “Sometimes I would get really bothered and go to sleep and silently cry, others times I would talk about it.”
“Tim actually thought he might have hepatitis from the blood he was given in 1994, until the ultrasound showed the mass in his liver. His internist then ordered a full body scan and a needle biopsy which confirmed it was metastatic GIST that was c-kit positive.”
Tim received the news on his 62nd birthday, 10 years after the original diagnosis. “Needless to say, birthdays will never be the same.”
Tim started Gleevec on Sept. 1, 2004, just a few months after they heard the bad news. He had a PET scan just 10 days after starting Gleevec and it showed dramatic results. Since then, Tim’s six-month scans have shown shrinkage followed by stability.
Normalcy has almost returned to the Mansfield home and the couple is enjoying their retirement.
Though Gail and Tim are grateful for their good fortune, GIST is also about the opportunities they don’t have. “One of the frustrating things is the things we wanted to do in retirement that we can’t do,” Gail says. “We’ll never buy that condo in the mountains or go on the vacations we want. It’s the disappointment of having something like this and putting away your hopes and dreams.”
Gail is still looking toward the future, despite these worries. “I hope that the Gleevec works for him for a really long time and on the horizon that there’s a new drug that will kill [GIST]. I just want to grow old together.”
Whatever the circumstance, Gail is aware of how lucky they both are for Tim’s restored health. “We feel blessed, we have freedom, every day is our own.”