For Rick and Jaime Wallace, the words “in sickness and in health” have taken profound meaning. When they spoke those words on their wedding day 12 years ago, the 19-year-old bride and 20-year-old groom couldn’t have imagined the devastating series of illnesses Rick would endure.
They met through music. “We were in band together at North Pines Middle School,” recalled Jaime. Later, at University High School, band reunited them. “I played the flute, and Rick was in the drum line.”
After football games band members would go out for dinner, and Rick and Jaime enjoyed each other’s company. “We had a lot in common, and we got along really well,” Rick said.
On Jan. 22, 1996, they had their first date. “We’ve celebrated every Jan. 22 since,” Jaime said, smiling. They married June 22, 1997 in the Isabella Room at the Davenport Hotel.
Two daughters soon joined their family. Rick continued working for Rosauers at University City, where he’d been employed since high school. They settled in Spokane Valley and renovated a 1915-era house. But like many couples, they began to grow distant. The demands of raising young children coupled with house projects and Rick’s busy schedule took their toll. In addition to his full-time job at the grocery store, Rick worked as a percussion instructor at U-Hi. “We’d been struggling a little in our relationship,” Jaime said.
But that struggle came to a turning point as they prepared for a family wedding. When Rick went to get fitted for a tuxedo, he was told they didn’t make pants in his super-skinny size. The always slender, six-foot, young man had gone from 150 pounds to 127 in six months.
It turns out Rick hadn’t been feeling well for quite a while. “I just ate a lot of Tums and ignored it,” he said. “When you’re sick so long, you just get used to it.”
Alarmed, Jaime scheduled a doctor’s appointment for him. Blood tests revealed Rick had Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease which affects the gastrointestinal tract. The disorder is incurable, but the symptoms can be managed with medication.
Rick is quick to credit Jaime for her intervention, admitting that if she hadn’t made the appointment for him, he probably would have just kept munching antacids – and suffering.
“It took a little while to get it all in control,” he said. But soon proper medication alleviated the worst of his symptoms and coincidentally, they found their marriage healing. “It’s easier to improve a relationship when you’re feeling better,” Rick said with a wry grin.
However, their relief was to be short-lived. Not long after the Crohn’s diagnosis, Rick began to suffer from severe joint pain and swelling. “One day they sent him home from work early,” Jaime said. “He could barely make it up the two steps to our door.”
Soon, Rick was diagnosed with spondyloarthropathy, an inflammatory arthritis that begins in the spine and affects all major joints. The disease is often associated with Crohn’s. Jaime became Rick’s patient advocate – or as her husband puts it, “my little health secretary.”
His physician added more medication to his daily routine and gradually his symptoms improved. But a few months later, additional blood tests brought more worries. Rick’s liver wasn’t working properly and his doctor expressed concern that he might have primary sclerosing cholangitis, a serious liver disease that affects about 1 percent of patients with Crohn’s disease.
Jaime did her research. “Google was not my friend,” she said. “I was a wreck.”
That’s because what she read about the disease scared her beyond words. It damages the bile ducts, is incurable and potentially terminal. When further tests confirmed Rick had it, Jaime was devastated. “There’s nothing you can do about it – nothing to slow it down,” she said. Eventually, Rick will need a liver transplant.
If that wasn’t enough, Rick also was diagnosed with Gilbert’s syndrome, an additional liver disorder. Through it all, he kept working, and amazingly, Jaime said, “everything has brought us closer together.” Doctors’ appointments became their weekly “dates.” They have a renewed appreciation for simple pleasures like a walk in the park or playing Frisbee with their daughters. “Somehow, it’s easier to just enjoy each other and the kids,” she said.
They found an online support group and learned the leading researcher of PSC works at the Mayo Clinic. Last year with the help of family members, the couple traveled to Rochester, Minn. Rick chuckled. “My first time on an airplane wasn’t to visit Hawaii or Florida; it was to go to Minnesota!” Unfortunately, tests confirmed the progress of the disease or as Rick puts it, “The ball is rolling downhill.”
In an unbelievable piece of bad luck several months ago Rick’s back went out. He was diagnosed with a bulging disc, unrelated to his other medical conditions. “It was just worn out,” Rick said and shrugged. He recently underwent spinal fusion surgery and is recuperating at home.
He’s hoping to be back at Rosauers by May 1, but Jaime isn’t so sure. “The doctors want him to wait until the first of June,” she said.
Through it all, his work with the University High School drum line has provided a welcome distraction. “It’s my home away from home,” he said of the school. “It’s a lot of fun – like being a kid again.”
As they reflected on the unexpected twists and turns life has thrown at them, the couple chose to count their blessings. “I don’t think I would have ever felt this close to him,” Jaime said. “I can’t imagine being without him.”
“You can sit and be bitter,” Rick said, “or you can just keep going. Bad events can make a relationship stronger.” He looked at his wife and smiled. “That’s what’s happened to us.”
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