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Overcoming the odds: Woman still standing after tolls of illness, death

POSTED: December 29, 2013 12:01 a.m.

In 2011, Sue Rhodes lost her husband of more than 50 years in a car accident and almost immediately was diagnosed with cancer. That was after raising a daughter born with cystic fibrosis who lived to age 29, long past her life expectancy of 14. Doctors said her longer than normal lifespan was due to the meticulous care she was given by her mother and father.

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For Sue Rhodes, faith is everything.

Her Bible planted on the table in front of her, she’s not shy about expressing her religious beliefs. God has pulled her through many a crisis, she said.

And Rhodes, a South Georgia native who, through various circumstances, has come to settle in Oakwood, has endured more than a few obstacles in her 73 years — from serious illness to a terrible wreck in 2011 that took her husband’s life.

“I don’t really know where to begin with this,” she said in an interview in her comfortable but small, one-bedroom apartment.

Most of her story surrounds the care she and her husband of 50-plus years, Harry, gave their only daughter, Juanika, who was born with cystic fibrosis and suffered with it until her death at 29 years old in 1996. Previously, the couple had a stillborn son.

Juanika was sick from birth. A visit to the emergency room led to the CF diagnosis.

It was a huge blow for the young couple.

“She got worse and worse. Her pancreas didn’t function to digest her food and her lungs didn’t work,” she said.

Cystic fibrosis is a chronic disease characterized by the production of abnormally thick and sticky mucus, usually resulting in serious respiratory infections and impaired pancreatic function.

Juanika underwent treatments at home, usually given by her mother. But her disorder also required hospital visits.

“We called them tuneups, but there were also things in between, like collapsed lungs and intestinal blockages,” Rhodes said.

Their daughter’s stays averaged one to four months at a time. “That was every year for 29 years,” she said.

Reflecting on those days, she said, “That was our lifestyle. It was a horrific thing. In the hospital, you never got any rest. A lot of times, she was hooked up to three to four pumps of medication going (into her body). And (with) beeps that went off night and day, you never rested.

“But Juanika was a fighter. We instilled in her that she could do anything that she wanted to do, if she wanted to do it badly enough,” Rhodes said.

Juanika wanted to go to college and ended up enrolling at Valdosta State University. She later transferred to other schools, including Georgia College in Milledgeville.

“Before she died, she lacked three quarters finishing nursing school,” Rhodes said.

Juanika didn’t want sympathy from anyone.

“She had a smile on her face and was always complimentary,” Rhodes said. “Everybody who met her loved her. She was a wonderful young lady.”

But it was that charm that led to medical trouble.

Cystic fibrosis patients are often separated in the hospital because of the potential of spreading germs to one another, and “naturally they flocked to Juanika’s room — that’s where they wanted to be,” Rhodes said.

One of the patients unknowingly passed to Juanika a condition known as cepacia, an otherwise unimportant human pathogen that can cause pneumonia in CF patients. She died in April 1996.

Financially, the years took a hard toll.

Her husband, who worked in the insurance business, “would work hard,” coming home at 11 p.m. or midnight, Rhodes said.

“He didn’t have any retirement when he died — I think it was like $150. I worked to help stabilize things as best I could,” she said.

“Harry and I made an agreement about Juanika: Was it going to be things that we desired in life, such as a nice home, cars and things of that nature? Or traveling — were we going to spend our money on that?

“Or was Juanika going to come first? We decided for Juanika. In doing that, we decided to give her the best medical care possible.”

The experience also taxed her emotionally, but “I never blamed God for any of that,” Rhodes said. “He didn’t have anything to do with that.

“I was the one who was insistent on having a baby. He said he would give us the desires of our heart ... and if I had not been so determined (to have a child), then (Juanika) wouldn’t have been born with the condition she had.”

Rhodes endured her next major trauma in November 2011, as she and her husband were driving home from the grocery store in Cordele.

She noticed a car traveling toward them on their side of the road and told her husband, who was at the wheel, about the errant driver.

“Harry tried to stay on his side of the road, but everywhere we went, she went. It was like a runaway bullet,” said Rhodes, who would later find out the driver was looking for her dropped cellphone.

The cars eventually hit head-on. A witness to the wreck ran to the Rhodes’ banged-up car but was unable to free them from it. He then went to the woman’s car.

“He (pulled) her out and ran with her from the car, and her car blew up,” Rhodes said. “The heat that was coming from that vehicle would just about take your breath away. I kept saying, ‘Oh God, please help us. Please send somebody.’”

Eventually, after the couple was freed from the wreckage, “I found out he was in much worse shape than I was in.”

Her husband was airlifted to a Macon hospital, where he died two days later.

Following the wreck, Rhodes moved in with her brother and sister-in-law, Billy and Jeanne Galloway, who live in Oakwood.

“They came to the hospital where Harry and I were and just kind of took over for us,” Rhodes said. “I didn’t know what to do and, about half the time, didn’t know where I was, really.”

As devastating as that ordeal was, more bad news was on the way.

“I had cancer at the time and did not know it,” she said.

As part of her treatment and imaging tests following the wreck, a doctor noticed a large mass in her spine but couldn’t tell whether it might be a blood clot. He wanted to see her again two months later for another MRI.

She discovered she had lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.

Rhodes has undergone treatment at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and, encouragingly, has seen the period of time between PET scans, a medical test that shows how tissue or an organ is functioning, grow wider.

“They’ll go on for another year,” Rhodes said of the tests, “but I don’t have cancer anymore and I try to tell (doctors) that I’m not going to have it anymore.”

She’s also certain that her healing came from a higher power.

“That’s just a part of me,” Rhodes said of her faith. “I’ve always devoted my life to my devotional and studying (the Bible). (God) has seen me through all those things. I didn’t walk through that by myself. He carried me.

“There’s no human being that could have gone through that and survived.”

Eventually, she has returned to independent living and otherwise put her life back on track.

The big step was moving out of the Galloways’ home and into her own apartment.

“I wanted to give them back their life,” she said, with a smile.

Rhodes also has joined Blackshear Place Baptist Church in Oakwood and is active in Bible study classes there.

“I have found peace and that ... living in (God’s) peace and presence makes everything worthwhile,” she said.


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