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Finding Peace At The End Of Life

A Story Of Hope In The Darkness

LIFE MATTERS MEDIA STAFF

Kimberly Dahlem never expected a series of headaches to change her family’s future.

The week before Thanksgiving in 2017, her husband, Mark Dahlem, began complaining of excruciating headaches.

“We thought it was just the hustle and bustle about the holiday,” Kimberly, 46, told ​Life Matters Media​. “We always open up our home for Thanksgiving. We have two to three Thanksgiving gatherings with various friends and we just thought that’s what caused his headaches.”

Unfortunately, the headaches persisted through Thanksgiving, and four days after the holiday Mark went to his general practitioner seeking relief.

Mark wasn’t the type to frequent the doctor, Kim said, but Tylenol “wouldn’t cut it.”

The then 46-year-old father of two led an active lifestyle, coached little league and served as a decorated police officer in Palatine, Illinois, for over 20 years.

“We didn’t even have general practitioners until 2017,” Kim said. “But we figured since we’re in our mid-40s we should probably have one. We did some research and that was the first time he went to see the doctor.”

On November 27, Mark received a CT scan and was “immediately” admitted to the emergency room. “They told him to call his wife,” Kim said. She got the call at 8 p.m.

“By the time I got there they had started pain medication for him, and then sent him in for an MRI that confirmed he had a large mass in the right frontal lobe of his brain,” she said.

Kim immediately drove to the AMITA Health St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates and called the police station to inform Mark’s colleagues he wouldn’t be at work the next day.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Kim recalled. “I certainly didn’t think it was brain cancer at the time. I had a panicked feeling.”

Mark was admitted into the intensive care unit that night and the couple then met with a neurological team.

“They said he had so much swelling on his brain that they had to give him medication to mitigate some of that so they could schedule brain surgery,” Kim recalled. “It took three days to get that swelling down so they could safely go in.”

On December 4, 2017, after the mass was tested, doctors delivered the “devastating” news. Mark had glioblastoma multiforme, a highly aggressive form of brain cancer.

“We were holding hands at his bedside,” Kim said. “It was a feeling of despair and let’s fight. What do we need to do to beat this? We’re survivors.”

Mark was transferred to a rehab facility and then back to his home for Christmas. The day after, he started chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The mass was removed.

Committed to the “fight,” Kim began investigating leading research universities. Duke University Hospital in North Carolina agreed to accept Mark for “high-level” treatments after his first round of treatments ended in Illinois.

“We gave them carte blanche,” Kim said.

In February 2018, Duke oncologists told Mark he didn’t have glioblastoma multiforme. Instead, he was diagnosed with adult pilocytic anaplasia, a somewhat milder form of brain cancer and would have “a new lease on life.”

“They said he could live another five to 10 years before any re-growth. They said if there was a re-growth, there are a myriad of medications you can try,” Kim said.

The couple had “tears of joy.”

Unfortunately, their joy was short lived. Nine months later, Mark learned of a new growth in a different spot. It was growing as aggressively as the first one.

“At this point we knew we weren’t going to fly him to North Carolina to stay there four to six weeks without any family,” Kim said.

In December, Mark was admitted to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He was still undergoing the trial medication from Duke.

He couldn’t stop vomiting, and by December 29, Mark was vomiting blood.

“At that point, I said you’re done with this. We’re going back downtown,” Kim said, adding that the trial treatments from Duke were halted.

He had a second brain surgery on New Year’s Eve in Chicago. On Jan. 7, they learned the second tumor was indeed glioblastoma multiforme.

“All along, it looked like Chicago was correct. We don’t have any ill will towards Duke because Duke provided us hope. Mark fought his way back and was able to full-time work. He got back to some activities. Regardless, he had an aggressive brain tumor. There were just different takes on the pathology,” Kim said.

The second tumor was removed, but a third was found on a major blood vessel in the back of his head. It was inoperable.

“We knew this was really advanced,” Kim said. “This time he was not as strong.” Mark was committed to “fighting it” but “struggled with the treatments.”

On January 17, Mark asked his medical team two questions: When can I get back to work, and when can I start coaching little league again?

Kim also challenged the doctors.

“I wanted to know how fatal this is. If this is Grade 4 GBM, we’re at the end of life here. We’re looking at a month, maybe two months if he’s an outlier. Why would we put more poison into his body? The doctors were taken aback,” Kim said.

Kim and Mark then met with a series of doctors in Chicago and they determined Mark was getting worse. His spine was also covered in tumors.

After being hospitalized for a fall, on January 25 doctors told the couple Mark had days to live.

“They said it would be inhumane at this time to continue chemotherapy or radiation,” she said. “They asked us what we would like to do as a family.”

After praying and consulting with JourneyCare, the couple decided it was time for hospice.

“It was an absolute no brainer,” Kim said. “God was in his heart and this was the place he knew he could get the care he needed to be able to move through his final stage.”

He was immediately admitted to JourneyCare in Barrington, Illinois.

“His human body continued to deplete, but his spirit continued to grow. It was a magical and fascinating experience. Some people talk about death as scary. This wasn’t,” Kim said.

Mark died February 5, four days after his colleagues honored him with a retirement ceremony while he was in the hospice and a day before his daughter’s 16th birthday.

Kim said she’s thankful Mark experienced hospice and now encourages dying patients to take advantage of it.

“They honored him as a full individual every step of the way,” she said. “It’s the most special work I’ve ever watched happen. It was such a peaceful place and location. His first two days in hospice, he had over 200 visitors.”

As a final act of kindness, Mark has donated his brain and spine to Northwestern Memorial Hospital for research.

“We were just your basic family and everything changed,” Kim said. “Never sweat the little stuff.”