Hard times strengthened couple’s bond

THURSDAY, FEB. 9, 2012

Not all love stories have fairly tale beginnings, no matter how happy the ending may be. When John and Vickie Hershey met, she was still married to her first husband. John, a physician, had undergone a contentious and very public divorce, and though it had been five years, hard feelings still rankled.

In addition, John was 20 years older than Vickie. In fact, she was his oldest daughter’s teacher at Mead High School. Despite the odds against them Vickie said, “There was this magic – that’s what we called it and still do. We were crazy about each other.”

From their Chattaroy home, John smiled and shook his head. “It’s hard for me to understand why she’s still crazy about this old man.”

Forty years ago, the couple faced seemingly insurmountable odds. But as accusation and acrimony flew around them, they decided to get out of town for a bit. Vickie took a leave of absence from the school district, and John’s partner agreed to handle their medical practice. “We in no way wanted to hurt people – we just wanted to be together,” said Vickie, 65.

They went to Reno, Nev., where Vickie obtained a divorce. The couple married on Dec. 22, 1972. Their honeymoon in the South Pacific was eye-opening for Vickie. “I’d never been anywhere.”

It also cemented their mutual desire to pursue medical missions work. This was something John discovered a passion for several years earlier, when he was asked by the U.S. State Department and the American Medical Association to serve the South Vietnamese Army. He recalled, “I went to Vietnam for three months and found the work much more satisfying than private practice.”

Their son, Jason, was born in 1974, and when he was 18-months-old they took the first of 12 trips to Papua New Guinea. They ended up spending a total of eight years in the island nation.

“We wanted to serve somewhere using John’s medical skills and my teaching skills,” Vickie said.

John was one of two doctors at a 120-bed hospital.

“In our culture, we’re pretty disposable,” Vickie said. “But we were so appreciated by the folks in New Guinea. It really defined who we were as a couple.”

She did everything from teaching in local schools, to starting a library, to assisting her husband in surgery. They returned to Spokane, but in 1978, they traveled once again to Papua New Guinea. While there, Vickie discovered she was pregnant. However, she soon grew ill and she and Jason were flown back to Spokane where she was admitted to the hospital.

After a difficult and complicated pregnancy, Vickie gave birth to a daughter, Rachel, on March 19, 1979. John had flown home for the delivery. Sadly, the baby had multiple birth defects and lived just one week.

“It was devastating,” Vicki said. “It still hurts to think about it.”

She rejoined her husband in Papua New Guinea, but her grieving process proved even more painful because she’d left her support network of friends and family back home. Vickie said, “When I lost the baby, I felt like I was being punished for not starting our marriage right.”

However, working through their loss strengthened their bond as a couple, and in 1983 they adopted Derek, 2 ½, and his sister, Valerie, 15 months.

In 1985, the entire family returned to Papua New Guinea and stayed until 1987. “Jason still feels like New Guinea is his home and goes back often,” Vickie said.

The Hersheys’ most recent visit was from 2009 to 2010. “If we go back, it will probably only be to visit, not work,” John said. “The need for our services has decreased because the German Lutheran Church has taken over the staff and there’s no longer a shortage of doctors.”

The couple has enjoyed an active lifestyle – skiing, hiking, ice skating – and John has a pilot’s license and enjoyed flying. But last August his passion for flight almost took his life.

“It was a beautiful day,” he recalled. “I took off from Mead Airport in my red and white Cessna and flew over Priest Lake.” As he made his approach to the landing strip at Cavanaugh Bay he encountered a slight downwind.

“I made a mistake and didn’t check the windsock,” John said. He doesn’t remember the crash into the trees. He hit so hard, the propeller was buried three feet into the ground.

It took 20 minutes for emergency responders to remove him from the wreckage. The list of his injuries is chilling. Seven broken ribs, broken arm, left knee and ankle damage, extensive facial injuries including a broken nose and shattered right eye orbit.

“We almost lost him that first night,” Vickie said. “But I had a peace that he was going to make it. He’s a fighter.”

So is she. Vickie is a five-year breast cancer survivor.

John’s recovery process has been grueling, and left John with diminished vision and numbness in his lower jaw.

While the accident has slowed him down considerably, it didn’t stop him from recently celebrating his 85th birthday with a skating party at Eagles Ice-A-Rena.

Though they both regret the pain their marriage caused others, they don’t regret a minute of their 39-year union.

Vickie said, “Neither of us makes an issue of our rights, we just try to do what is right.”

John glanced at her and said, “I was a basket case emotionally, and she rescued me.”

Vickie easily articulates what John has added to her life. “He isn’t a good gift-giver – it’s painful for him,” she said. “But every day, he gives me the gift of affirmation and that’s something you can’t wrap up.”

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