7 minute read

Devin Strong

the inspirational story shared by Jason Russ

"No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..."

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So begins John Donne's famous poem, "For Whom the Bell Tolls," which speaks at first to the great need of humanity to recognize that we are interconnected and bound together in something far greater than we give thought to at times.

For those who face life-threatening diseases like cancer, it can feel like they are castaways on an island unto themselves. But, as is often the case, they soon find they are in a community of love and care and faith that pulls them back into "the main" of support that exists for such times as these.

The journey for Devin Jarvis of Lorain began at a young age when her parents told her that she had an inherited propensity toward a type of colorectal cancer called Lynch Syndrome. Her family urged her to test for it, and in her 20s, she did. To her relief, it came back negative.

Ryan and Devin Jarvis

Ryan and Devin Jarvis

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

Even still, she was highly encouraged to have regular checkups starting in her 30th year—the milestone birthday landing in the unforgettable year of 2020.

That year, she had been married to her university sweetheart Ryan for seven years, and they were enjoying their two little boys Brody (4) and Baylor (2). She scheduled her colonoscopy for April, but the onset of COVID-19 brought about a swift postponement of the appointment.

The summer's slow reopening of life brought with it some sharp abdominal pains and trouble eating and digesting food, so a new date was finally set for September 30 to see what was going on.

What the scope revealed caused the technician at UH North Ridgeville to quickly awaken Devin and call in Ryan to announce that she had a massive obstruction in her bowel— something that would soon be diagnosed as Stage 4 colon cancer.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

A team of specialists and doctors soon joined the conversation after further scans revealed the need for a very aggressive plan, including surgery removing the entire colon, both ovaries, and a total hysterectomy.

In a brief video to family and friends on October 2, 2020, Devin and Ryan updated their families on the diagnosis and the long road ahead of them, full of many unknowns. Behind the couple reads a quote from author Gretchen Rubin:

"The days are long, but the years are short."

Nothing could be more true of the journey that lay ahead of them as they made this difficult announcement trying their best to look strong for those who love them most.

Before surgery and chemo, Devin posted another video for her friends and family entitled, "Stay Off the Internet." She researched the type of cancer she had and discovered that only 10 percent of the patients come out on the other end NED—no evidence of disease.

"This is what I struggled with," Devin shared. "When you're Stage 4 and you go in and check the box, you check that it's to maintain the cancer—they can't cure it. That was the hardest part for me to grasp."

Ryan said that at the beginning of treatment, certain people in the same situation "would often say,

'Why me?' and Devin wanted to take the approach of 'Why not me?' So I had a sign engraved and placed on a shelf at home in order to say, 'I am a survivor.'"

Devin added that she saw that question as a hopeful declaration that she would be in that 10 percent. 'Why not me' would ring through every long day ahead.

photo courtesy of the Jarvis family

After surgery, those long days ahead would include 12 rounds of chemotherapy stretching over six months. The experience, at times, would make her feel as if the years were literally being drained from her.

Though what made a huge difference was having the two little boys at home, keeping Devin away from prolonged rest and urging her to get up and be active for their sake. Ryan described the boy's presence as something that helped both of them tremendously in seeking out new adventures almost every day.

But when the tougher days came, family and friends were there to sweep the tiny duo away so mom could rest and gain back some strength.

Faith in God was also a significant factor that brought life and light to the couple. Searching the heart of God through devotionals in a Bible app and having daily communion to remember the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross helped to keep Devin and Ryan strengthened in their faith through days of physical, mental, and emotional weariness.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

Throughout the chemo process at Westlake's UH Seidman Cancer Center, the fellowship of Devin's chemo family would enact a tradition of ringing a bell three times whenever they finished their treatment schedule. Devin described times of joy when she saw and heard a victor ring the bell—and times when it brought her to tears as she prayed that she could find that spot among the bell ringers.

The tradition of ringing the bell began in 1996 at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas, where Navy Rear Admiral Irve Le Moyne donated a bell to the center that he rang three times to signify the completion of his cancer treatment.

With it, he included a poem titled, "Ringing Out:"

"Ring this bell three times well, its toll to clearly say

My treatment's done, this course is run

And I am on my way!"

Devin's day came on May 26, 2021.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

She rang the bell at the Seidman Center and, with tears in her eyes, remembered all the helping hands God sent through the long days now behind them: People like her neighbor who worked for UH and had amazing connections to get them to just the right person when they needed answers or appointments;

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

People like a friend of Devin's mother who donated $5000 toward her chemo's first payment—which covered the bill in full at just the right time;

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

People like those from Constant Aviation in Cleveland who sponsored through Seidman and chose a family to receive a full Christmas gift celebration—for mom, dad, and both boys;

photo courtesy of the Jarvis family

Family and friends who held #devinstrong sweatshirt fundraisers, paprikash fundraisers through Your Deli in Amherst, and a meal train for the Jarvis family that went from September 2020 to May 2021.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

This outpouring of love and support culminated in Devin's return home after ringing the bell, where she was shocked to find a host of her supporters out in the rain with signs shouting and with tears and laughter welcoming her home as a triumphant part of the 10-percent survivor club.

As she reflected with gratitude on this moment, Devin recollected hearing something on a radio broadcast:

"When you go through an experience like this, most people don't get to see their own funeral or hear their eulogy. Where, when you go through something that's so life-threatening and you come out of it, it's almost like you got to experience it and you got to see who shows up and who's there to support you."

Her heart of thankfulness overflowed for a year and a half of being able to be with her boys and husband through the ordeal—time that her former role as a physical therapist would have stolen away in the daily routine of work and family.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

For this survivor, a ringing bell brings a much different allusion than what was expressed by Donne:

"Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

Yet, if you asked the Jarvis family what lasting effects this whole experience had on them, they'd express everyone's need to be aware of the bell that tolls for them and how our love and compassion for those facing grave trials must increase, and our faith must deepen because we are not islands unto ourselves—we need each other.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography

Let the Christmas bells ring this season with a renewed reminder toward this kind of true-grit faith, love and hope, and the blessing of our interconnectedness—a true gift given by our Creator.

photo by Aileen Elizabeth Photography