story and photo by David Hoffmaster
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2014 edition of My Boone Health magazine.
As a Marine in the Pacific theater, Fred Oerly had survived World War II. He had volunteered to serve as a forward observer for naval gunfire on hostile islands like Guadalcanal, Bougainville and Okinawa, and received both a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.
But, on a Sunday morning in February 2014, Fred thought he might be in for his last battle.
Fred had been living by himself since his wife passed away. He continued to live in the Boonville home he had built with her 63 years ago. At 91, he led an active life, exercising three times a week and driving himself to Hartmann Village, a local assisted-living facility, for lunch. His daughter-in-law Karen had purchased meal tickets for him there, and Fred greatly enjoyed the camaraderie and socialization whenever he visited.
Fred had been selected for a Boonville Honor Flight to visit the World War II monument in Washington, D.C. A proud supporter of the program, Fred, who is a prolific and talented woodcarver, hand-carved more than a hundred cardinals over a period of two years and presented them to the volunteers who ran the Boonville Honor Flight program.
Fred was also working on his second book, sharing his experiences during World War II. His first book, Some Mighty Good Years: 1925–1937, written when he was 86, was a memoir of his childhood spent in the small river town of Overton, Mo., where Fred’s father ran the local grocery store until it closed during the Great Depression.
And then, on that February Sunday morning, Fred threw up bright red blood. His first action was to call his daughter, Dianne Oerly. She quickly picked him up and brought him to Boone Hospital Center’s Emergency Department. An initial endoscopy was unable to locate the source of the bleeding, but an x-ray and CT scan revealed a large mass in his right lung. Fred was admitted.
Fred’s doctor, Wade Schondelemeyer, MD, soon arrived, in the company of Eric Thompson, MD, a cardiothoracic surgeon.
Dr. Thompson told Fred there was a favorable chance that his surgery would be successful.
“Then let’s go!” Fred responded. He and Dianne made some calls to other family members. Another daughter, Donovan Davis, made urgent plans to travel from her home in Florida to be at her father’s side in Missouri.
The surgery to remove the mass from Fred’s lung concluded at midnight and was successful. The entire mass had been removed; no follow-up radiation or chemotherapy would be needed. The next day, Fred felt pretty good.
“The service was amazing,” Dianne says. “My father was diagnosed and cured in one day.”
Dr. Thompson attributes Fred’s recovery to his positive attitude.
Prior to his surgery, Fred told the surgeon about his experience in Bougainville during the war. As a young Marine, he had been convinced that he would die during the intense combat on the island. His survival changed his outlook on life.
“I’ve seen this in some patients who’ve faced death before,” Dr. Thompson says. “They lose their fear of dying.”
Fred remained upbeat about retaining his independent lifestyle, as well. Boone Hospital occupational therapy assistant, Cayla Viers, advised him on how he could make his home safer, and the family arranged for visits from Boone Hospital Home Care.
After a week in the hospital, Fred went home with Dianne and Donavan.
“Boone Hospital is where I wanted to be,” he says.