Family faces cancer with hope
Cancer. There may not be a more feared and hated word in the modern world. Forever changing lives, the disease destroys otherwise happy homes and causes untold hardships.
Sadly, Fairmont resident Gary Reutzel and his family are among the latest to understand cancer from personal experience. Having previously lost relatives to cancer, Gary was diagnosed with stage I pancreatic cancer on Nov. 12. Only one month later, while he was in the hospital for treatment, Gary and his wife, Anne, learned that their daughter, Krissy Fischer, had been hospitalized with leukemia.
For all the heartbreak, there is a fighting spirit that prevails in the family. In talking with Gary and Krissy’s husband, Mike, it becomes clear they intend to push back, striving for health and happiness.
“I went in Oct. 7,” Gary said. “My wife’s brother and her sister were here to visit, and they asked what was the matter, saying I looked kind of yellow, and I did notice before that I had all the symptoms of pancreatic cancer because my brother died of that. So I went to the emergency room in Sioux Falls and they transferred me right away, where they put in a stint and that’s when they found the tumor.”
It soon became clear that the dire news had a small, but not unappreciated, silver lining.
“They told me that is so very, very rare to get pancreatic cancer in stage I, because it can be a silent killer, and in stage III and IV it’s a death sentence. My tumor grew towards my bile duct rather than my blood vessels, and it ended up with them saying that probably saved my life.”
Gary’s first chemo treatment, scheduled for Dec. 4, caused him to go into anaphylactic shock and he was unable to receive further treatment at that time. He said that was frustrating because pancreatic cancer spreads quickly to the liver, and Gary was anxious to get on with chemo.
It wasn’t long after when he was in Sioux Falls for more treatment, as well as dealing with E. coli, when he and Anne received news about their daughter.
“On Dec. 13, I got a phone call that my daughter had been taken to Fairmont ER, then she was taken by ambulance to Mankato where she had multiple blood transfusions, and then was taken by ambulance to Rochester and she was diagnosed with leukemia,” Anne said.
“It was devastating,” Gary said. “As a parent, my instinct is that I’m supposed to take care of my kids, and I couldn’t.”
“When I was told that [Gary] had pancreatic cancer, I thought my world was coming to an end,” Anne said. “It was nothing compared to the day I heard my daughter had leukemia. That was the ultimate, but you find the strength and you do what you have to do.”
Krissy’s husband Mike was available to share what happened.
“I took her in on Dec. 10,” he said. “They did some bloodwork and it didn’t take long for them to tell us it didn’t look good. They sent us to Mankato, and they said that to do more tests they would have to send her to Rochester, where she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.
“We were devastated,” Mike continued. “Honestly, you never think you’re going to be in the position to have to think about it, or just to think in general. It’s been hard.”
Mike said that Anne, along with Krissy’s best friend and brother, have been selflessly taking care of his young daughters, Hannah and Makenna.
“[Our daughters] understand what’s going on, but it was very hard for them to get the news,” he said. “They’re very close to Gary and then to tell them they’re going to be without mom and dad for about a month, it’s tough.
“But they do know, and I like their approach. They say ‘Papa has cancer with a tumor that needs to be killed, but mom’s cancer is a different kind of cancer and it’s an infection in her blood.’ I like the way they look at it, because it makes it feel like [the doctors] just need to kill the infection.”
Mike shared that Krissy is officially done with her first round of chemo treatments, and her bone marrow biopsy shows remission.
“She still has to go through four more months of chemo,” he said. “It’s an extended therapy treatment, and then after those four months, it’ll be another month after that before they do another biopsy, and by that time she should be in complete remission.”
Gary said that over the last two years, the family has seen much heartache and loss. In February 2016, his father suffered a heart attack, and in May his younger brother was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and passed away in June. Then, on Dec. 20, 2016, Gary’s mother suffered a heart attack, and they spent last Christmas in the hospital.
In summer 2017, his mother fell and broke a hip, and it was the very week he was diagnosed that Gary finalized paperwork to get her in a nursing home. When asked how they got through it all, Gary and Anne were quick to point out their faith.
Gary and Anne are members of St. John Vianney Church, and Gary is in the Knights of Columbus and also volunteers at St. John Vianney School.
Gary is also a VFW member, and past VFW commander. He is currently commander of Disabled American Veterans. He volunteers as a COP (Citizens on Patrol),
In addition, Gary is vice chairman of Martin County Veterans Memorial, and is an officer with Martin County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon.
Mike, Krissy, Hannah and Makenna are St. John Vianney Church members, with the girls attending school at SJV. Mike works for Hawkins, and has organized many softball tournaments raising money for American Cancer Foundation. The family has also volunteered for Martin County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon during Freedom 5K raising money for area military families.
Both families are extremely grateful to their friends, family and community for the outpouring of support.
“For five years, I’ve done charity work for American Cancer Society and I’ve run our annual event in Fairmont, and I hope to continue it,” Mike said. “But when you’re on this side of it, you get a different perspective on what people do for you. The community and our friends and family have been absolutely amazing in giving their support.
“Krissy wanted to add that she is so thankful for everyone who is showing support to our girls, to make this easy on them,” he said. “Her biggest thing is that Hannah and Makenna are her reasons to get through this, and she has the utmost appreciation for everyone who is making this easy on them.”
“Handling all the outpouring of support people want to give to us is hard in a way,” Gary said. “I would rather be the one to give, and it’s so hard for me to comprehend that. My priest told me that I’ve got to let them do what they want to do, because that makes them feel like they’re doing something, but it’s so hard to fathom why people want to do so much.
“But we appreciate it from the bottom of our hearts,” he added.
“Thank you doesn’t seem enough,” Anne said. “It’s very humbling.”
As for what the future holds, Gary and Krissy intend to fight back, and both families look forward to happier times.
“My goal is that I’m going to fight it, I’m going to beat it,” Gary said. “I have to do chemo every other week for four months, and then they’ll do a Whipple surgery to take the head of the pancreas off and any cancer that’s around it. Hopefully, this fall I can say I’m cancer free and I’ve beat it, and hopefully this summer my daughter can say she’s cancer free, and then me and her are going to have the biggest party we could ever imagine.”
Martin County Beyond the Yellow Ribbon will host a benefit for the Reutzel and Fischer families from 4-7 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Fairmont National Guard Armory. There will be a pork sandwich dinner, and a raffle and silent auction will be held from 4-6 p.m.
People may call Tam Plumhoff at (507) 238-2806 or (507) 238-3220, or Paula Pitman at (641) 990-7341 if they would like to volunteer, or make a donation for the silent auction or raffle.
In addition, auction and raffle items can be dropped off at Peters Insurance located at 206 N. State St. in Fairmont.
Donations also can be made at Profinium Financial Fairmont.
A GoFundMe account for Krissy can be found at