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Caregiver role increases pastor's empathy

By DAVID ZOELLER dzoeller@paducahsun.com

GOREVILLE, Ill. -- As pastor of the First Pentecostal Church in Goreville, Ronald Null has made plenty of home and hospital visits with members of the congregation he has served for 45 years.

Whether visiting with a patient, or family member of a patient, he always tries to empathize with their situation and offer whatever comfort he can. But his experience as a caregiver to his wife, Geri, over the past two years as she has recovered from breast cancer and other medical issues has given him a new depth of understanding.

"You see people go through this (caregiving), and you go to them ... and you're in it now," Null said. "You put your hand on their shoulder and say, 'Listen, it's hard, but you can do it. I understand what you're going through. If you need me, call me. About anything.' Sometimes people just want to talk."

Geri discovered her breast cancer with a self-examination in May 2014. From that initial discovery, through 12 weeks of chemotherapy, some serious issues with blood clots that followed, the surgery, and 33 radiation treatments following the surgery, Ronald has played a role he didn't know he was capable of.

"I didn't think I had it in me, to be honest with you," Ronald said, of the constant care he needed to provide. "I thought there's no way I'm going to be able to do it, but you do it. She's my wife and I love her."

He tries to keep on a schedule, making sure his mornings are free to allow time to get her breakfast and to try to keep the house clean because visitors will often pop in unannounced.

"I'm vacuuming. I'm doing laundry," he said. "I'm washing her clothes. I've never done that before in my entire life."

While he has taken on many new duties in his caregiver role, there is one thing he draws the line at.

"The only thing I don't do is dust ... I just don't like it," he admits.

Despite a lack of dusting, Geri gives her husband of 50 years high marks.

"He's a wonderful caregiver," she said. "He actually goes overboard, I think, to take care of me. I have no complaints in that area."

Ronald, 70, is still a full-time pastor to the 100-member congregation, and by his admission, "still going 90 mph."

While Ronald is the primary caregiver, both he and his wife are thankful for the help of their family, which includes children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, friends and neighbors, and their church family for helping out when Ron has to be away from home.

Geri, who is 75, admits she does worry about the impact the caregiver role could have on her husband.

"I'm concerned that he's overdoing it, yes, very much," she said.

When he needs a little time away from the constant caregiving, "I just get in the car and listen to the radio and go to the hospitals and take care of my business," Ronald said. "I go to the church and do my meditation and prayer."

Ronald has made one concession since his caretaker role has become prominent.

"I sold my motorcycle, my Harley," Ronald said. "I loved it."

When his wife got sick, and he was still trying to ride, he realized that having to have his cell phone with him at all times was becoming dangerous.

"Here I am messing with my phone while I'm riding," he said, acknowledging either "I'm going to get hurt, or I'm going to hurt somebody."

There have been many challenges along the way to today, with Geri being cancer-free.

Following chemotherapy and before her surgery, Geri developed blood clots in her lungs.

"We almost lost her there in intensive care," Ronald said. "They came and told us the high potency of the treatment to dissolve the blood clots was high-risk and they called the family. They said 'we've done all we can do.' But fortunately, by the hand of the Lord, she's still with us."

More recently, the couple were heading out on vacation when Geri began having serious heart issues in the car.

"We had to pull over in Mount Vernon (Illinois)," Ronald said, of the detour to the hospital emergency room. Geri was treated successfully and given a LifeVest, a wearable defibrillator.

When asked how they have managed to face each challenge, Ronald said: "We stood together, our faith, our family, our children ... are just wonderful."

The Nulls feel blessed to have received so much support, and are thankful for all the "wonderful doctors and nurses" who have provided care along the way at Lourdes, Baptist Health Paducah, and Good Samaritan hospital in Mt. Vernon and St. Louis, and emergency personnel.

They are blessed in another way, too.

"This caregiving stuff, for me, while it can get me down, I can do it, but I don't have the external pressure a lot of people may have," Ronald said. "I've got to remember that a lot of people, they're worried about their finances, they're worried about bills ..."

According to Ronald, the couple still have some options available, including the possibility of in-home care that Medicare would pay for.

"I said, nope, I'll take care of her the best I can."

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