RICHFIELD - Marlin Burkholder credits church and friends for helping him get an early diagnosis of leukemia instead of waiting months for a late and terminal one. Now the support of other friends and members of the community is helping him financially during this time of healing.
"Ride for Marlin," a benefit motorcycle ride, will take place at 10 a.m. Saturday, at Delaware Mennonite Church near East Salem. Registration is from 9 to 9:45 a.m. Cost is $10 per rider and $10 per passenger. The 125-mile ride will go through Potter's Mills, into Mifflinburg and end at Lauver's Mennonite Church in Richfield. A free meal will be held after the ride at Lauver's. Interested riders can register the day of the race or in advance by calling 463-3467.
Pastor Glenn Hosler of Delaware Mennonite Church is chaplain of the Christian Motorcycle Association. He came up with the idea and presented it to the family last spring. Hosler, who is involved with the Juniata Mennonite School, knows the family through the school, where Burkholder's youngest child attends and Burkholder's wife, Marcella, is an employee.
Sentinel photo by TABITHA GOODLING
Marlin and Marcella Burkholder sit inside their Richfield home.
The Burkholders say they are overwhelmed by the Hosler's actions and others in their community since Marlin was diagnosed in January with a very serious form of leukemia.
It's been almost a year - close to Labor Day - since Marlin first noticed something was not right with his body.
"I was more tired than normal," the Richfield man said, "I was cold all of the time. I would eat supper with my coat on."
Marlin, who drives a logging truck, did not do well on his most recent Department of Transportation physical.
"If it weren't for four friends in my life, I would have let it go," Marlin said.
For three months those friends noticed Marlin weakening. Those people were his wife, his pastor John Gehman and two church friends who worked in the medical field.
"They kept telling me to go for blood work," he recalled.
The last week of January, Marlin made that call to the doctor. A blood test revealed three days later there was cancer in his blood and it was likely leukemia.
He was sent to a cancer doctor in Lewistown and immediately sent to Hershey Medical Center upon confirmation of the diagnosis.
"It all went so fast," Marcella said, "He was diagnosed on a Monday and in Hershey on Wednesday."
It became imperative to doctors that Marlin would need a stem cell transplant. In order to do that, he would need chemotherapy to kill the existing cancer. Two rounds of two very different forms of chemo "did not phase the leukemia," Marlin said. A third try was a clinical trial which included experimental drugs. That third, new type of therapy was a winner for Marlin.
"The kind of cancer I have - the survival rate is in the single digits. It's like five percent," Marlin said.
The fact that Marlin received the trial was what he and Marcella describe only as a miracle.
"It's very hard to get the trial," he said, and a computer randomly selects who will receive it. Marlin's name came up, and the treatment put him into remission.
The infection and the transplant
That spring, despite his remission, Marlin could not go through the stem cell transplant. They found a perfect match with his sister, Janessa Graybill of Richfield, but due to the chemotherapy weakening his immune system, Marlin developed a debilitating lung infection.
"It nearly killed me," he said. On April 17, he had surgery to remove part of his lung. He said he still fights that infection today, though it is not nearly as severe.
By mid-May, Marlin was approved for the stem cell transplant. His sister received a number of shots with hopes of producing five million of the needed white blood cells. She remarkably produced 21 million.
"They were astounded that they got that much," Marcella said. The extra blood cells will be stored in case Marlin needs another transplant.
The transplant was an easy one for Marlin. They moved the blood cells through an intravenous port line. He received five days of chemo both before and after the transplant.
On June 4, Marlin returned to his Richfield home.
The 'Miracle Man'
There is an ongoing joke at Hershey Medical Center regarding Marlin. Doctors and nurses do not understand how a working family man ever allowed himself to go to the doctor and get checked.
"Most men just say 'Oh it will get better,' and let it go," Marlin said, and Marcella pipes in, "That's what he did for three months!"
Doctors told them if he had waited longerm the prognosis would have been terminal. They said men like Marlin who have leukemia often get very late-stage diagnoses because of their need to take care of their family.
"They call me the Miracle Man" he said, because he managed an early diagnosis, he was in remission from his clinical trial, he survived the lung infection and had a successful stem cell transplant.
Today he is still weak but able to do some small tasks around the house. His hair, which he lost during the chemo, is slowly growing back and he is starting to feel a bit more like himself as time goes on. Still, the road to complete healing will be a long one.
Marlin credits his four friends for keeping after him to see a doctor. He also credits his faith and adds his wife has been a tremendous support to him.
Because of his illness, he has not been logging with his son-in-law since late January. Bills poured in, but help continues to also be available as their insurance, a Christian group called Medi-share, assists with some of their costs.
At the hospital, Marlin saw a chart of survival rates of people with cancer. Their survival rates were based on the support they had. The number one support source with the highest survival rate was that of church groups. Marlin was not surprised, since church groups are the backbone of his support.
"Our support is nothing short of amazing," he said.