Annette’s Halo

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“Annette’s Halo,” Ensign, Sept. 1991, 71

Annette’s Halo

Her ordeal was painful and debilitating. But the kindness expressed to Annette following neck surgery was angelic.

The summer it all began, Annette Smith Hill was twenty-nine years old, a wife and the mother of three children. Her complaints at first were symptoms common enough that I didn’t worry too much. “My neck gets so tired when I sew,” she would observe. “I must be sewing too long at a time.” But she had always been sewing, and for long hours. It was her hobby. Her dresses and suits had won prizes in high school. Her neck had never bothered her then.

During her three years with the Utah Youth Symphony, Annette’s neck hadn’t hurt when her chin supported her violin for long hours of rehearsals and performances. Nor was there pain when she had wallpapered her kitchen, helped install the sprinkling system, or painted the children’s bedrooms.

When the pain in her neck did start, Annette’s way of dealing with it was to ignore it. Despite the discomfort, she would lift her children and carry on a busy life of family and Church service. Finally, after about two years of intermittent pain—often very severe—Annette felt it was time to see a doctor.

The visits began. Tests were conducted. More visits, more tests, more waiting for results. At length, the tests revealed a tumor alongside the spinal cord, inside the vertebrae.

The serious questions began, and then further consultation. Various doctors shared their diagnoses. It was during exploratory surgery that they discovered an extremely rare type of malignant bone cancer. Her only hope: radiation, chemotherapy, and radical surgery.

Then came the steady stream of help and support. Like the spring runoff from the mountain snow-melt, it began to flow and kept coming. Offers came to drive her to the radiation treatments, to help with the children, to do the laundry, and to lift her into the tub after she became weak. There were notes of encouragement, anonymous checks, and meals brought in. A sister in Annette’s ward—still anonymous—gave her dozens of jars filled with peaches, pickles, juices, sauces, and jellies. Scouts and elders mowed the lawn and shoveled the walk. The love flowed.

As the medical expenses began to escalate, another overwhelming display of love occurred. Acquaintances, neighbors, and relatives from opposite sides of town held a large fund-raiser sale. Baked goods of every description appeared on tables, along with antique china and brand-new kitchen and dining sets, stereos, bikes water beds, lawn mowers, computers, even pigeons and a puppy. Everything sold, and the money went toward Annette’s surgery costs. People who will probably never see each other again rallied to help.

The strength they brought still blesses our lives years after their flood of loving charity. Annette is the second of our eight children. Family prayer, coupled with fasting, has long been a source of strength for us throughout Annette’s ordeal. On one special occasion, we all gathered and knelt, holding hands. My husband, Gordon, led us in prayer, and then each family member in turn offered the prayer of his or her heart. A bond was formed in our family that evening that may perhaps have been formed in no other way. Our unity brought us peace and love and joy in our trial. Each of us knew that whatever lay ahead, it would be as our loving Father in Heaven would have it.

Not all was serious, however. Radiation treatments thinned Annette’s hair gradually to the point that one day when I went to see her I found her completely bald. Trying not to show my emotions, I teased, “Now we can finally paint a smiley face on top.”

Trying to keep her courage, she replied, “I can hardly wait till Halloween. I won’t even have to put on a mask when the trick-or-treaters come. I’ll just open the door and say ‘Boo!’” And when Halloween came, that’s exactly what she did—except that by Halloween, Annette wore a wig. As she opened the door, looking quite normal to the neighborhood children, she would fling off the hairpiece, shocking them with the surprise.

Brave as she tried to be, Annette was not always able to summon her humor. Journal entries reveal that beneath her generally cheerful exterior, the struggle was at times terrific. It seems that as she endured the most difficult moments, she gained insights that increased her capacity to go on.

She told me, “During the chemotherapy and radiation, I became very discouraged. One Sunday, when the family had gone off to church and the house was quiet, I started thinking of all my troubles. I was bald, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink, my throat had been burned almost completely shut, and I found it very difficult to speak. My ear canals were burnt, and there was clicking in my ears when I swallowed. I was in great pain. I prayed and cried for a long time, initially, feeling very sorry for myself.

“After much soul-searching, the thought came to me that we cannot always control what happens to us, but we can control how we choose to take it. The Lord would give me the courage to fight this if I wanted to. Together, we could win. I thought about my three young children and realized I wanted to stay with them. I wanted to win. From that point on, I felt my faith strengthen. I trusted in the Lord, and he was there with me to give me peace.”

At the UCLA Medical Clinic, Annette shared a room with four other women. Some of them had had brain surgery, and some were near death. Some were clinging to life, and others were without faith or hope. Annette immediately began to cheer them.

Still, her spirits dropped at times. One night in the hospital, the seriousness of her situation hit her with full force, and she turned to the scriptures for comfort. The night nurse saw her light on and came to see how she was. They cried together, and the nurse said she didn’t understand how Annette could be as strong in the face of her challenges as she had proved to be. She explained to the nurse that she knew that everything would happen according to God’s will. She knew that whatever the outcome, everything would be all right.

Annette’s children—Jacob, Emily, and Spencer—matured quickly while their mother was in the hospital. At ages five, eight, and ten, respectively, they learned to do what needed to be done at home, getting themselves to and from school. Taught to have trust in Heavenly Father, the three of them bonded together, willing to clean, cook, wash, and care for themselves. Annette’s stays in the hospital usually lasted months at a time. When she was home, she was often in bed recovering, so the children would care for her directly, answering the phone and the door, bringing and returning the empty casserole dishes brought in. They remained strong for her, though their pillows were often damp with their tears.

What of her loving husband during this extended crisis? Russ buckled his priesthood mantle tighter and put his trust in the Lord. He was by her side through it all. He encouraged, listened, and sustained in every way he knew how. Russ made sure that Annette knew how important she was.

Thanksgiving came. Standing in the line at the hospital cafeteria with my husband and my daughter’s husband, each of us looking at our little slice of turkey and trimmings, it seemed strange that the rest of our family was at our home a thousand miles away around the table without us. We took our trays to Annette’s bedside, and there she and I and Russ and Gordon offered thanks for her life and reflected on our blessings.

Later that afternoon, while pacing the hospital halls, I met other parents who were in anguish about their children, who had other serious illnesses. Together, we encouraged each other and acknowledged our blessings. The following year, as we sat at our bounteous feast—once again in our own home—the memory of those who were suffering that Thanksgiving Day a year ago was strong in each of our hearts. Our prayer of thanksgiving became more fervent than ever and took on a wider concern.

The thanks-giving continued through the year as I came to share in the trials and grief of others. One day, while waiting outside the door of the testing room with Annette, another stretcher was wheeled by her side. A conversation began, and as Annette was taken in for testing I continued to listen to the woman. Her fingers gleamed with jewels, yet her words were full of sadness and loneliness. Though wealthy, she had no one who would share her illness and sorrow with her. “No one comes to see me,” she lamented, “I have one daughter, but she’s too busy for me. I don’t think I have any friends.”

I felt her longing for love and compassion. Taking her thin hands in mine, I told her I loved her. I laid my cheek against hers, and together we cried. I don’t know her name, but through her, I again learned the true meaning of giving thanks.

After months of treatments and tests, Annette faced a second round of surgery, more intensive, more uncertain. The stern-faced orthopedic surgeon told us of the risks—possible paralysis or severe brain damage. The outlook was grim, but our faith and hopes remained high. As she was taken from her room for the thirteen-hour surgery, Annette handed each of her surgeons an envelope. Carefully tucked inside each was a photograph and a note. Along with the picture of her three children, the note read, “As you operate, please keep in your minds these three children, who are waiting for me to come back to them.”

As always, when you await an answer, time crept. At length, the surgeons reported that the operation had been a success. Their skillful hands had been guided, and our prayers of hope once again became prayers of thanks. Annette was soon released—her head immobilized and protected by a device called a halo brace, which she had been wearing for four months. One doctor explained that it was called a halo brace because a person comes very close to becoming an angel to warrant the attachment of such a device. It was like a steel enclosure, with four thin rods attached to an unremovable chest-vest, two rods in front and two in back. The rods, like four antennae, connected to a halo-like ring that kept Annette’s head from moving.

We were told that the very slightest movement could snap the fragile vertebrae or put pressure on the spinal cord, instantly paralyzing Annette. It became an awesome responsibility to move her to the airplane. Airport assistants literally carried her wheelchair over every crack, incline, and obstruction. Annette resembled a priceless statue in transit, head held erect in the brace, sitting rigidly upright in a wheelchair.

Once we had her safely home, Annette’s new strange appearance was exaggerated by old familiar surroundings. Not only was she completely bald, but the cumbersome brace that secured her head appeared more conspicuous than it had in the hospital and on the airplane.

Her home was decorated for the Christmas season when Annette arrived, and that seemed to please her. It was a festive homecoming, and Annette felt relieved to be there, despite the rented hospital bed, children for nurses, and the bustle of home life rather than the quiet of a hospital room. Within ten hours, however, she was rushed to the local hospital by ambulance. Symptoms of pneumonia led doctors to discover a blood clot, undetected beneath the metal brace.

As Christmas approached, Annette’s hospital room twinkled—trimmed in lights for the season. Though she was eleven years out of high school, the same man who directed the madrigal group she sang with then brought this year’s group caroling for the special Christmas service on the Sunday before Christmas. Music had always been a dear part of Annette’s life—singing solos, duets, and leads in musicals. She wept for the beauty of the music and the season. She wept, too, for a voice that would not—in this life at least—be the same. And I wept with her.

Two days before Christmas, she came home. Friends, neighbors, and families gathered to greet her. It was joyous.

By June, Annette and Russ and their little family had moved to Portland, Oregon. With no extended family and being new in their ward, they faced new challenges. But when Annette was told she would need proton radiation treatment, the flow of love began again. It streamed from the ward into their home continuously.

She went to Boston for ten weeks of proton treatment—from west coast to east coast. Feeling very alone, Annette attended a Boston ward, where the warmth of its members immediately encircled her. Offers were extended to transport her to and from the hospital daily, invitations to dinner were shared, doors were opened, encouragement was expressed, and tears were spilled.

This story has no ending. The pure love of Christ knows no boundaries. Can one ever repay so much kindness? The answer has come both to Annette and to me: “You will never be able to repay the ones who have helped you, but you can extend love and compassion to others you know or will someday meet.

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matt. 25:40.)

Illustrated by Keith Larson

Annette’s long illness and struggle for recovery brought her and her mother closer and strengthened their appreciation for loving friends.