When life threw Joe Shaughnessy a curve, he learned a whole team had his back
by Kara Hansen
Joe and Ann Shaughnessy, farmers and members of St. Michael Parish in Axtell, are “good folks.”
People here know that the Shaughnessys are always willing to do anything for you, according to friend and fellow parishioner Sherry Ronnebaum. Like most proud, self-sufficient types, however, they’re not so quick to accept help.
For example, in 2002, when Joe Shaughnessy was diagnosed with a Grade 2 brain tumor, it was serious, scary — and expensive. When family and friends found out, they wanted to help.
But when they asked Joe and Ann for permission to host a benefit on the couple’s behalf, the Shaughnessys said they felt they could manage, so they graciously turned down the offer. Joe received his treatment, and the Shaughnessys moved on with their lives.
But cancer doesn’t fight fair.
And it is no respecter of good folks.
Never a good time
Farmers are well-acquainted with Murphy’s Law (“Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong, at the worst possible time.”), but this sucker punch was perversely cruel.
In late October 2008, Joe had a follow-up MRI to establish whether he was cancer-free. The result? A clean bill of health.
With that out of the way, he undertook the purchase of a new herd of dairy cows.
And then the punch: Two weeks after buying the cows, and four weeks after his clean MRI, doctors discovered Joe had a Grade 3 brain tumor.
Because of the rarity and severity of the tumor, the Shaughnessys discovered, Joe would need to go to Houston for the surgery — more than 800 miles from his home.
And his surgery and hospital stay would not be cheap. A further problem was that the insurance situation was considerably worse than it had been previously.
Since his surgery seven years before, the rates on Joe’s insurance had risen steadily, while his coverage continued to shrink. Joe and Ann had to write a $4,000 check to the hospital before the surgery could even be performed. The financial burden grew crushing.
“It seemed like every time I turned around, someone was saying the insurance wouldn’t pay for this or that,” said Ann. “And we just had to say ‘OK, we’ll figure it out later.’ We were in survival mode.”
You can’t keep good folks down
Small communities are like big families, and word about Joe’s situation soon got around.
And, like the first time, people wanted to help. While working at a community benefit in Axtell, Sherry Ronnebaum started thinking again about organizing a fundraiser for Joe.
“Cheryl Reinecke and I were working together and discussing the recent problems that Joe and Ann were facing with the meningitis following his surgery and I said, ‘OK, it’s time there is a benefit for Joe and Ann.
“‘We have waited long enough!’” said Ronnebaum.
“Of course, at that time we still had to get them to agree to it, so a good friend of theirs — who happened to also be Ann’s hairdresser — agreed to bring the subject up to Ann,” Ronnebaum continued. “She asked and got permission for us to go ahead. Who better than your hairdresser to talk you into something!”
“We did not wait,” she concluded. “We got right on it and had plans made in just a few days.”
The auction and dinner were both the work of many St. Michael’s parishioners and the larger Axtell community. Nearly 70 items were donated for the auction. Roy Buessing, a parishioner, smoked meat for the dinner and the Knights of Columbus prepared it for serving.
A food list was placed in the local grocery store, giving Axtell residents an opportunity to pay for parts of the meal. Within four days, Ronnebaum said, all the food for the benefit was completely covered.
“Then we worried we would not have enough food, so we put up another food list in the store,” said Ronnebaum. “The new list lasted three hours before everything was purchased.”
All told, the benefit raised over $13,000 to help offset Joe’s medical expenses.
“I’ve lived in Axtell all my life, and that’s the way it’s always been,” said Ronnebaum. “Helping each other is just a way of life here.”
Kathy Buessing, also a St. Michael’s parishioner, said that the sacrifice of one group of teenagers went above and beyond the call of duty. At the auction, nine Axtell teens volunteered for a good day’s work — each would provide eight hours of labor to the highest bidder.
“Their effort alone raised over $3,700,” said Buessing.
Even more important than the money raised, said Buessing, was how the nine teens — who had played sports with Joe and Ann’s youngest son, James — made Axtell residents feel about their future.
“They demonstrated to the community the quality of the future leaders we have and made a tremendous impression on a lot of people,” she said. “The leadership skills they showed in organizing this project were tremendous. This type of leadership will impact the younger students at our school, too.”
“There are not many 17-year-old boys who will donate eight hours of their precious time to make money for someone else,” she said.
But for Adam Ronnebaum, who organized the group of young men, helping the Shaughnessys was a no-brainer.
“James was a year older than me and a good friend,” said Adam. “I was surprised and glad we brought in that much money.”
Help has even come from beyond Axtell.
Donations have come from their family members; from parishioners at the churches served by Father Jim Shaughnessy, Joe’s brother; and from members of neighboring parishes in Marysville and Seneca.
What can “good folks” say about that?
“I am very humbled by everyone’s generosity,” said Joe.
Help both financial and practical
In addition to the exorbitant medical costs Joe was incurring, he was also having to be gone from the farm frequently for treatment. Even when he was home, he was sometimes too sick to work.
Joe had no more recovered from his surgery Feb. 4, than he developed meningitis and needed home health care. Then he had radiation treatment and chemotherapy from mid-February until the end of April, which meant he needed to be at a hospital in Kansas City — two and a half hours each way — during the week.
But the cows still needed to be milked, fed and tended; the crops still need to be planted — sick or not. That’s when more good folks stepped in.
Friends Jason Heinen, Brad Heiman, and Rita Bernasek — parishioners of St. Michael’s — did all of the daily chores at the Shaughnessys’ farms during Joe’s surgery and treatment from Feb. 4 to April 23.
This including milking the cows, feeding them twice a day, hauling manure, and taking cows to the vet, along with general maintenance and upkeep of the farm.
Gary Fischer also helped with feeding the family’s beef cows, as they have cattle on two different tracts of land 15 miles apart.
“Jason was here sometimes five to six hours a day,” said Ann, “and he has his own farm to run and keep up with.
“It’s not a big deal to them; it’s just what you do to help out. When we thank them, the response we usually get is what they’re doing is small compared to what Joe has been through.”
Joe and Ann’s four grown children have returned home to help, especially on the weekends. Men from the St. Michael’s Knights of Columbus re-fenced parts of the Shaughnessy property. And other farmers came to help plant Joe’s crops for the year, working around getting their own crops into the ground.
Good folks for the long haul
Joe and Ann are now home, hopefully for the duration, and the help just keeps on coming.
“[Our neighbor] Arlie Haug has been here with Joe almost every day, helping him try to resume his own chores since we have been home from April 23 on,” said Ann.
“He is a very kind, gentle man who just ‘helps’ Joe do his work,” she continued. “He has been just amazing.
“Joe is on his chemo right now and some days he doesn’t feel well — and he is very tired. Arlie just takes up the slack on some days.
“Jason Heinen and Arlie are two of Joe’s angels.”
Joe will continue to have rounds of chemotherapy until next May, along with regular blood tests, and follow-ups every three months in Kansas City.
He faces an uncertain future, as the likelihood of another brain tumor is high. Medical expenses continue with chemotherapy bills to pay, trips to the oncologist in Kansas City, checkups in Houston, and MRIs every three months for the next two years.
But the load Joe and Ann carry has been made a little lighter by the love and aid provided by their friends, neighbors, and fellow parishioners.
“All we have to do is ask, and somebody shows up and does what we need, without fail,” said Ann. “Every Sunday at church, people ask what we need and what they can do. This parish is full of people asking what can we do for you.”
Ann said more than the physical and monetary help given to the couple, prayer is what has helped them through one of the most difficult times in their lives.
“Most important, we believe, were the prayers offered up for Joe for so long,” said Ann. “We felt the power of those prayers every day, helping us cope with what each new day brought.”