Sherrie’s Shield of Faith

“Sherrie’s Shield of Faith,” Ensign, June 1995, 44

Sherrie’s Shield of Faith

Faith, inspiration, and overflowing love have played key roles in healing during Sherrie Grigg’s long struggle with a life-threatening tumor.

Two small placards grace a wall in thirteen-year-old Sherrie Grigg’s bedroom. One bears the word Faith. The second is a scriptural reference, 3 Nephi 22:13 [3 Ne. 22:13], reminding all who enter, “Thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.”

Sherrie’s spirit remembers the peace, just as her body will not let her forget the pain. “The Lord’s peace comes,” she says in reflecting upon the past four years, “but it doesn’t always come at once or in the way we might hope.”

For Sherrie, the summer of 1991 began like all of her other fondly remembered summers—full of warmth, youthful exuberance, and happy days that seemed to defy mortality. Then nine years old, Sherrie rode bicycles with friends through her friendly hometown of Ammon, Idaho, marched in the Fourth of July parade with a community dance team, and camped in the mountains with her parents and sisters—Kerrie, her twin; Melinda, her older sister; and Janice, the baby. Sherrie looked forward to entering fourth grade in the fall.

Stomach problems slowed Sherrie down in mid-August, but Clayne and Debbie Grigg weren’t alarmed until medication failed to improve their daughter’s condition. Sherrie soon started losing weight and strength. After something began triggering her vomiting reflex, the family doctor quickly arranged for tests at Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, a four-hour drive south. Clayne and Debbie were unable to find a hotel room when they arrived in late August, so they decided to check Sherrie directly into the hospital rather than wait until the next day as scheduled. That decision would save her life.

“The doctors were doing a lot of whispering,” Clayne says of tests conducted Sunday morning. “We knew that things were serious because the more tests they ran on Sherrie, the more physicians gathered and the more specialists they started calling in.”

Clayne and Debbie were not prepared for the results of an MRI scan, which revealed what is called an astrocytoma—a rare tumor that grows within the spinal cord. Although astrocytomas are usually benign, their location makes them risky to remove. Sherrie’s tumor stretched from the base of her brain stem nearly nineteen inches down her spine, strangling spinal nerves and threatening paralysis. Doctors decided to operate immediately.

The words of pediatric neurosurgeon Marion Walker gave Clayne and Debbie hope. “Three years ago we would have told you to go home and enjoy with Sherrie what little time she has left,” he told them. “But because of modern technology, we can go in and chase that tumor now.”

“Do You Still Love Me?”

To reach the tumor, surgeons carefully cut and removed a section of Sherrie’s vertebrae. Then, after splitting open the back of the spinal cord with a laser, they used an operating microscope and an ultrasonic aspirator to suction the tumor, hoping Sherrie’s immune system would destroy residual tumor cells faster than they could reproduce.

Sherrie’s three days of scheduled tests turned into ten weeks of painful recuperation and physical therapy following a fourteen-hour operation. “Compared to this, going to school would be easy, and doing dishes would be fun,” she told her parents.

Their daughter’s suffering was the hardest thing Clayne and Debbie had ever endured. News of her tumor devastated Sherrie’s grandfather, Reeve Norman, who is close to his granddaughter. He and his wife, Doris, had weathered a tragedy in 1984 when their sixteen-year-old daughter, Cheryl, was killed in an automobile accident. The thought that they might now lose a grandchild weighed heavily on their spirits.

Following Sherrie’s surgery, which left her hovering near death, Clayne felt embittered and doubtful. In the hospital’s chapel, however, he found strength and spiritual refuge. “Once, as the sacrament was being passed in the hospital branch, I remember a mother’s tears falling on her sick baby she was holding,” he says. “Another time, as I was blessing the sacrament, we heard a Lifeflight helicopter coming in. We knew it was carrying a child who was just hanging on to life.”

By empathizing with other parents who were mourning their suffering children, and through meditation and prayer, Clayne and Debbie gained an increased understanding of the Atonement and of the Savior’s ability to “succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12). “What happened from then on was a growing, positive experience,” Clayne says.

Sherrie was able to move some of her fingers and toes after being released from intensive care. Dr. Walker was encouraged, but he told Sherrie’s parents that surgeons certainly could not take all the credit if Sherrie recovered.

“There is a power in surgery that is not mine,” says Dr. Walker, a member of the Cottonwood Fifth Ward in Salt Lake City. “I really felt that was manifest in Sherrie’s case. She came in here almost totally paralyzed, but things went so smoothly. A lot of good things happen to kids here that we can’t take credit for. Maybe because we help children, the Lord looks over us.”

When Sherrie came out of anesthesia, Dr. Walker asked her, “Sherrie, do you still love me?” She forced a smile through the pain.

“Daddy, Aunt Cheryl Is Here”

Following the surgery, Clayne and Debbie spent the day praying fervently and taking turns keeping vigil at Sherrie’s bedside. As he watched his red-haired daughter sleep in a curtained cubicle that night, Clayne worried that she might die, as Dr. Walker had warned. But Sherrie awoke the next morning and immediately began speaking. A feeling of reverence engulfed the cubicle. For a moment, Clayne was puzzled by Sherrie’s words.

“Daddy, Aunt Cheryl is here,” she told her father. “And another lady I don’t know is with her.” Clayne and an attending nurse, the only ones at Sherrie’s bedside, glanced at each other. Sherrie continued.

“Grandpa Norman [Sherrie’s deceased great-grandfather] and Grandma Brown [Sherrie’s deceased great-great-grandmother] are here. And Daddy, who is that standing beside you?”

“I don’t know, honey,” Clayne replied. “Who does he look like?”

“He looks like you, only taller.” Sherrie paused, then continued. “He says he’s your brother, Jimmy.”

Clayne was three when Jimmy, ten years his senior, died of cystic fibrosis. “I doubt that during Sherrie’s life Jimmy’s name had ever been mentioned,” Clayne says. “She had never even seen a picture of him.”

Clayne, feeling that Sherrie’s death was imminent, hurried from the intensive care unit to awaken Debbie, who was sleeping in the hospital’s parent room. “There are visitors,” he told his wife. “I can’t see them, and I doubt that you can see them. But I can feel them.”

For nearly an hour, Sherrie looked about the cubicle and described her visitors, all deceased family members. Exhausted, she then fell asleep.

“Daddy, all of the children here in the intensive care unit have angels helping them,” Sherrie later told her father. Other visits and sacred experiences, before and after subsequent surgeries and during painful tests and procedures, followed.

“People from the other side helped,” Sherrie recalls tearfully. “When I was really in pain, they would come and help me calm down. They told me that I would be okay and that I would make it through.”

“Help Me So I Don’t Hurt”

Sherrie’s bright freckled countenance and easy smile belie the pain she has suffered. Rather than complain, she likes to count her blessings and share her testimony of the Savior—what he has done for his Father’s children and what he has done for her. “The Savior really did die for us,” she says. “Knowing what he went through has helped me. I feel I know him better now.”

Sherrie also willingly shares her testimony of the power of prayer and the priesthood. Promises made during many of the blessings she has received have been answered, sometimes immediately. During blessings of comfort, for example, Sherrie sometimes fell asleep, receiving badly needed rest before or after her four major surgeries, or during trips to and from the hospital.

“I did not want to leave my hurting little girl,” Clayne says of having to return to work in Idaho after spending five weeks at the hospital following Sherrie’s first surgery. While agonizing over what he could give her as a good-bye present, he felt prompted to bless her that her legs would receive strength so that she could walk again.

“Debbie called me a couple days later and told me that Sherrie took some steps with help from one of her therapists,” Clayne says. “A couple days after that, she took a hundred steps.” By the time he returned to the hospital two weeks later, other young patients were cheering Sherrie on as she made her way around the hospital using a walker.

But within three months of Sherrie’s surgery, the tumor returned. By the time Dr. Walker determined the time was right to operate again, in October 1992, the tumor was six inches long. Because the removal of any portion of a healthy spinal cord can cause permanent damage, Sherrie’s operation was immensely delicate. Yet the surgery went well despite the added risk posed by scar tissue, which can make a normal spinal cord look abnormal. Two weeks after the operation, surgeons inserted steel rods to stop further curvature of Sherrie’s spine. Several weeks of renewed physical therapy, along with radiation therapy, followed. Sherrie was home by Thanksgiving but remained ill. Her condition worsened, and she was soon back in the hospital—first in nearby Idaho Falls, then in Salt Lake City.

Physicians at Primary Children’s Medical Center suspected radiation sickness. Debbie’s father, Reeve Norman, gave his granddaughter a blessing in which he told her that doctors would be able to determine why she was still ill and help her recover. Before he concluded, monitors tracking Sherrie’s blood-oxygen level sounded an alarm. Nurses quickly whisked Sherrie away.

Doctors soon realized that the problem was not radiation sickness after all. X-rays revealed that Sherrie’s diaphragm had torn, either as a result of stress or her weakened condition following surgery. Part of her stomach had been sucked up through the diaphragm and into her left lung cavity, partially collapsing it. Sherrie’s life was again in danger, and surgeons feared they would not be able to save her stomach because it had been deprived of blood circulation. As she was being prepared for emergency surgery, Sherrie told her worried grandfather, “Don’t worry, Grandpa. You can go home now. I’m going to be okay.”

The rapid fulfillment of Sherrie’s blessing left her grandfather grateful and humble. “I found out that it’s not only the faith of the one doing the administering, but the faith of the one being administered to,” he says. “Here was this little soul who says, ‘Help me so I don’t hurt. Give me a blessing.’ So you go to the scriptures and read about the power of the priesthood and the blessings that come through it, you fast and pray, you wait for inspiration, then you proceed even though you still feel inadequate.”

Sherrie had to be fed liquids for three months following that operation. Surgeons saved most of her stomach, but they didn’t expect her to be able to eat again normally. She requested a blessing for her stomach, and her recovery once again surprised her doctors.

Sherrie and her parents spent Christmas in the hospital, while Sherrie’s sisters celebrated Christmas in Ammon with Reeve and Doris, who cared for them during much of their parents’ absence. Sherrie suffered from high fevers following her stomach operation, but returned home in February 1993.

Her collapsed left lung did not heal as doctors had hoped, but she was too weak for further surgery. Sherrie was determined to attend school part-time in April until she became too sick to continue.

When she began vomiting bright-red blood one day at home, she asked for a blessing on the way to the local hospital before being flown to Salt Lake City. The internal bleeding from her infected lung immediately stopped. “Special things like that have happened quite a bit,” Clayne says. “We learned that we have a loving Father in Heaven who can help us and bless us.”

“Love Came Naturally”

“You go home teaching, you go visiting teaching, you pray that people will be blessed, but you feel like you don’t really do anything,” Debbie says. “Being on the receiving end, I realize now what it all means. You can actually feel people’s prayers, faith, strength, and love. We knew that people cared and were pulling for us. They didn’t wait for us to ask for what we needed. Their consideration, love, and service is what allowed us to survive the whole thing.”

As they surveyed the names and return addresses on Sherrie’s many packages, letters, and get-well cards at the hospital, Clayne and Debbie were often moved to tears. They were also touched by Sherrie’s homecomings from the hospital.

“As soon as people recognized our car, they would start waving, flashing their car lights and honking horns,” Clayne says. “Just driving into town became very emotional. People had often removed snow from our driveway, cleaned the house, or mowed the lawn. Love and kindness came in the form of phone calls, dinners, visits, handshakes and hugs, fasting and prayers, flowers, cards, and letters.”

Home teacher and family friend Ciro Rustici told Sherrie in a letter that her faith had helped ward members and that they were proud of her for bearing with her trials. His encouragement, reminding her that ward members loved her and were praying for her recovery, strengthened her following her second major surgery. Ward members and people the Griggs barely knew, including physical therapists at the hospital, prayed and fasted for Sherrie’s recovery. On several occasions, friends and anonymous donors made financial contributions.

Susan Murdock, Ammon Elementary School principal, says Sherrie touched students with her faith and patience. “Love for Sherrie came naturally for teachers and students,” she says. “They went out of their way to be kind and considerate to her.” While she was in the hospital, students and teachers held fund-raisers for her and deluged her with cards and letters. When she returned, they greeted her with welcome-back parties and acts of compassionate service.

Primary leaders buoyed Sherrie’s spirits as well during one surprise hospital visit, alleviating her homesickness and restoring her appetite in the process.

“It’s easy to say, ‘My thoughts and prayers are with you,’” says Janet Poliski, Sherrie’s third-grade teacher. “But doing things, even just sending a card or making a phone call, can make a big difference.”

Traveling to Primary Children’s Medical Center to visit Sherrie was not easy for Janet. Her three-year-old son, Mark, had died there following open-heart surgery just before Sherrie entered the hospital for her first operation. Visiting and calling Sherrie and sending her gifts and cards “helped me to have love and concern and to want for someone else to recover and return home,” Janet recalls.

The Grigg family’s trials united members of the Ammon Tenth Ward by generating love, compassion, and opportunities for service. “We really didn’t have to make assignments, because people wanted to help the family so much that they were already there,” says Carla Judy, ward Relief Society president. “It was a spiritual experience for the whole ward.”

Bishop Richard Rankin said people donated more than time and money to help the Griggs. “They donated their hearts, making an emotional investment that meant so much,” he says. “Bad things happen in life, but so do miracles. Because of the love that was generated and the opportunity people had to do something good, we saw lives changed, testimonies strengthened and rekindled, people coming to church who hadn’t come for years, and people attending the temple. God brought about his will through this experience as people did the things he expects of his children. Sometimes Heavenly Father blesses us in ways that we don’t understand. In this case, everybody understands.”

“The Most Important Thing”

Sherrie can no longer march in parades or ride her bicycle through Ammon. Because her spine is permanently curved and the feeling in her left foot has not returned, walking is now a struggle. But as often as she falls, she picks herself up.

“I think I could go through this again if I had to,” she says with childlike faith. “But I don’t really want to.”

Sherrie’s long-term prognosis remains uncertain, but her challenges do not prevent her from feeling gratitude or making the most of the days God has given her. She appreciates simple things, like being able to eat, clean the house, and spend time with her parents and sisters.

“Our Savior doesn’t put us through anything that he doesn’t think we can go through,” Sherrie says. “We just have to pray and ask him for help. I think I went through these things to help me get stronger in the Church, and to help people realize what others go through. I have learned that the most important thing in life is to love and help one another while we can.”

Photography by Michael R. Morris and Grigg family; line resolutions by Welden Andersen