‘We felt like our world had fallen apart’
More than most, Heidi Henion believes in signs.
After all, she makes them for a living.
Her wooden signs speak volumes about her life. She hand-cuts, sands and paints words like “grateful,” “blessed” and “believe,” a tribute to her medical journey.
What started as a passion blossomed into a hobby, and now a full-fledged business, Feather and Birch, that sells to thousands of customers a year and has shipped to all 50 states.
The words have been a long time coming.
“It started when I was 12,” said Henion, now 32. “I was having a lot of stomach issues, a lot of pain and a lot of diarrhea. I was constantly going to the bathroom.”
That made life tough.
“As a girl in middle school, that was really hard,” Henion said. “I had just changed schools. It was a hard time emotionally and physically.”
Dr. Cloney helped keep Henion’s disease in check, but when she turned 19, problems flared again.
Henion had “aged out” of Dr. Cloney’s practice and began seeing an adult gastroenterologist. He ordered IV infusions and medicine to counteract her symptoms.
“He had me getting colonoscopies once a year,” Henion said.
All went well until February 2013, when a suspicious spot showed up. A biopsy confirmed her fears—she had an aggressive form of colon cancer. Her GI doctor recommended surgery with Ryan Figg, MD, a Spectrum Health Medical Group colorectal surgeon.
“My husband and I, we felt like our world had fallen apart,” Henion said.
Dr. Figg said the risk of colon or rectal cancer increases eight to 10 years after a patient is diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
“Her final pathology returned with a positive lymph node, making it a stage 3 colon cancer, so she was treated with post-op chemotherapy,” Dr. Figg said.
Cancer was hard, but cancer was a huge blessing for me.
In March 2013, Dr. Figg removed Henion’s entire colon and rectum. He created a J-pouch, a surgically constructed internal reservoir, to replace her rectum. Henion then started chemotherapy at Spectrum Health Cancer Center at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion.
“They wanted to move really quickly because of the type of cancer it was,” Henion said. “It was super scary and very emotional. Fortunately, my husband is a rock for me. He’s been through so much with me.”
That includes the births of their children, both premature due to Henion’s ulcerative colitis. Her son Isaac weighed only 4 pounds when Henion gave birth four weeks before the due date. Her son Jackson arrived six weeks early, weighing only 3 pounds.
“They were both taken (from the womb) early because they didn’t have enough amniotic fluid to survive, because I was so sick from my ulcerative colitis,” she said.
Return to normal
Dr. Figg performed a second surgery on Henion in October 2013.
“He reconnected everything again so I no longer had to have the ostomy bag,” Henion said. “I actually feel better now than before I had cancer. Because I no longer have a colon, I don’t have ulcerative colitis anymore. Cancer was hard, but cancer was a huge blessing for me. It’s allowing me to have a healthy life.”
And an inspired life.
In May 2015, Henion decided to turn her hobby, her passion, into her life’s work.
“I want to do what I love and what I’m passionate about,” she said. “I quit my job and started making signs full time. It really took off.”
She now has three full-time and four part-time employees in her shop in Byron Center, Michigan, dubbed Feather and Birch.
Amid the whirring of saws and smell of fresh paint, Henion explained that the “feather” in Feather and Birch comes from Psalm 91:4, which hangs on the wall behind her desk: “He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge.”
“We use birch wood in all of our pieces,” she said. “I really love what I’m doing. It’s incredibly fun and fulfilling to see my pieces in people’s homes.”
Many of those pieces are inspirational words or Bible verses.
“I make the word ‘gather’ out of wood that people like to put in their kitchen or living room,” Henion said. “’Thankful’ is a really popular word, too.”
Sitting in her office with her dog, Remi, on the floor next to her desk, and her sister, Julie Waayenberg, painting a piece nearby, Henion said the cancer—and her work—have helped her feel truly blessed.
“I’ve learned that family and friends are so important,” she said. “I’ve learned to work hard and do what I love. And just really, the importance of God and prayer and family.”
Henion’s experiences led her to start a blog, HeidiHenion.blogspot.com.
“I feel like God has put things in my path,” she said. “I’ve really been able to share my story. I kind of use the blog as my journal. People still reach out to me. I think God is definitely using my story and things I’ve been through to help people in some small way.”