Pine River family faces troubles with grace, hope
Community steps in to help large family in their midst of a devastating health issue.
PINE RIVER — The Sechser family in Pine River is a well-known, well-loved family of 13, so when a dark cloud in the form of a cancer diagnosis loomed, their community stepped in to help during hard times.
Joe Sechser grew up in Pine River. He met his wife, Amber, in the Cities.
"I joke that he went to the Cities to find a wife and moved me up here," Amber said.
Back in Pine River, they decided to start Joe's Heating and Air LLC and raise a family. Since then, they have raised 11 children who are ages 7-30, with five still living at home. People have gotten to know them through their involvement in Pine River-Backus sports, Pequot Lakes Community Theater, the business and the Catholic church where Joe has been deacon since 2012.
Those connections became a blessing in May, when Joe started to experience troubling health symptoms.
It started with unexplainable feelings of euphoria and melancholy, as well as some disorientation.
"I was having these rushes of joy or happiness," Joe said. "Sometimes I would have a deep feeling of sadness, like on Easter Sunday. I said, 'I have no reason to be sad.'"
"The weekend before I called the doctor, he had a strange sensation all over his body again," Amber said. "I was thinking he was having panic attacks. An explainable situation. Then I realized he was not well. Something was really wrong."
They scheduled a doctor appointment a week out. A particularly bad episode led them to move up that appointment.
"I was trying to get home and I was on a road I wouldn't normally take," Joe said. "I looked around. I knew where I was because I was right by Madden's Resort. I drove home from there and went to bed. It was weird because I don't usually go to bed at 1 p.m."
"I said, 'We can't wait. We need to go,'" Amber said.
They went to the emergency room, where Amber and medical staff were concerned about Joe's mental state. Fortunately, they did a scan of his brain.
When test results came back, the diagnosis was pretty dire.
"The provider came into the room and the look on her face said it all," Amber said. "She said, 'Do you have MyChart?' I said, 'Yes, we do.' She said, 'Have you read the report yet?' I said, 'Should I have?' Then she sat down on the stool and looked at us and said, 'I don't know how to say this.' I said, 'Clearly, you just did.'"
"It was stage four glioblastoma, which is really the most aggressive tumor you could get in your brain," Joe said. "But we're feeling hopeful. The doctor said he was pretty sure he got all of the tumor. The neuro oncologist has been really happy with the results so far, but I still have strange symptoms."
On average, stage four glioblastoma patients have a life expectancy of 18 months, though there are those who do much better. Joe's doctor in this journey has a patient who has survived 12 years and counting.
In addition to surgery to remove the tumor, Joe had six weeks of chemotherapy. When the news got out, it didn't take long for the community to reach out to take away some of their burden.
"Diane Haman coordinated a meal train during Joe's six weeks of treatment, " Amber said. "People brought meals, which, when you have five kids and you're trying to get your husband places, I wasn't making great meals. Instead of having pizza and chicken nuggets, she stepped up and brought a whole group of people together. Every time she put out a meal train request the thing was filled within a day. People are so generous."
The support didn't stop with food. Friends, family and neighbors joined forces to help the Sechsers with expenses during these hard times. Joe's employees have ramped up their own work to help keep the business in operation, and just before Christmas they were surprised when the Best Christmas Ever program showed up at their door with gifts and well wishes.
"I've had people come to my door with envelopes with large amounts of cash in them," Joe said. "(One person) said, 'We've really been blessed in our life and we want to help you out,' and gave me an envelope. There was 15 $100 bills in there. It's amazing. We've had the Best Christmas Ever gifted to us."
Finally, when a deer sabotaged a peaceful December drive in their large van, the family was left with yet another problem to take care of. Michael Bruesch quickly organized a GoFundMe page to raise money to help the family afford a new van. Before Christmas, the page had surpassed its $75,000 goal, raising $79,735 to buy the Sechsers a new van.
Of course, it couldn't be just that easy, so like almost everything else, supply chain shortages have delayed the van's arrival.
"It's a brand new Toyota Sienna," Joe said. "They thought this place had it in stock, but we found out it wasn't in stock, the place was saying they could get one."
"I think they thought 'in transit' meant they were trying to get it to Brainerd," Amber said. "'In transit' meant they didn't know where the van is. It could be on a cargo ship. It could be in the United States, but we don't know."
In spite of all they face, the Sechsers have managed to keep a positive outlook. The support they received has certainly had something to do with that, but so too has their faith.
"We literally can feel the prayers," Amber said. "People that aren't faithful even admit they can feel positive energy. I never believed it because I'd never experienced it, but it's extraordinary. Supernatural. We are doing emotionally well given the situation. The kids are handling it within their own abilities. The adult kids are handling it differently than the younger kids because they understand it better, but the kids at home are doing really well."
"We have a really good faith life," Joe said. "We have really good friends who are faithful Christians and a lot of people praying and supporting us. We got a meal train right away. When we got back people were bringing over tons of food. I think it's our faith that keeps us positive. Obviously we're praying for a miracle. This tumor is pretty serious, but I've always been a positive person."
Joe still has several persistent symptoms, likely from the surgery. He has tremors in his hands and feet and extreme fatigue. He's also on various medications, including steroids and anti-seizure medicine after suffering a grand mal seizure.
Amber said they are thankful the tumor was located in the emotional center of his brain, instead of a section that controls hearing or sight, which could have left him with major physical challenges.
The family is doing their best to live life to the fullest. They are currently taking a vacation in Florida. If they can get the checkups Joe needs there, they could be in the warm temps for more than a month.
Regardless of where they are, they are doing their best to keep the faith and pray for a miracle.
Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.