The Race Against Time

John & Sara Ratzenberger

John Ratzenberger says his new bride, Sara, first had a persistent cough that wouldn’t go away. They were just back from their honeymoon and looking forward to starting their new life as a couple. Shortly after returning, Sara developed a persistent cough.

When Sara first went to see her doctor she was diagnosed with pneumonia. But the cough didn’t go away. Six months later, she underwent surgery and a lemon-sized tumor was removed. Then more startling news: Sara had stage 4 lung cancer.

John remembers the date: July 23, 2010. Suddenly, the 31-year-old avid runner who never smoked was in an unexpected race against time.

"It was less about curing the disease than it was about treating it and prolonging her life and doing what we could to make her feel better," John says.

They were referred to the Cotton O’Neil Cancer Center's palliative care program, and connected to Robin Holthaus, RN, BSN, OCN. The program provides extra support for patients with serious illness, with a team that includes doctors and nurses to coordinate care and where treatment includes both physical symptoms and emotional and spiritual needs.

Holthaus says providing the patient the best possible quality of life is the goal of palliative care. That’s exactly what she wanted for Sara.

It was Robin, John recalls, who a year into Sara's treatment noticed unusual side effects and insisted on an MRI. The scan revealed cancer had spread to Sara’s brain. She was then able to get radiation and had another year and a half with her husband. During that time, the couple traveled and enjoyed life. Together.

Sara died Nov. 8, 2012, at the age of 33. John credits the palliative care team for leaving him at peace with his memories.

"She was an amazing, amazing person," he says of Sara. "I got to see her not as a diagnosis or someone I gave care to. I got to see her as my wife and that's the important thing."