Howard Speegle has spent his life avoiding doctors.
The 81-year-old self-described gypsy has relied on a lifestyle of healthy eating, walking 3 to 4 miles per day, and traveling the globe.
So it was quite a surprise when pancreatic cancer caused Speegle’s path to cross continents and connect with Mathew Chung, MD, a surgical oncologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.
“I get emotional when I talk about him,” Speegle said with tears in his eyes. “He saved my life.”
Dr. Chung said he found the story of Speegle’s journey to Grand Rapids and into his care remarkable.
A traveling man
Speegle has lived in five countries and 21 states, and has visited 50 countries and all 50 states. On February 1, he left Waterford, Ireland, where he had been living, to visit friends in Germany on his way to France.
While in Karlsruhe, Germany, he decided he couldn’t ignore his symptoms any longer. He was jaundiced, with yellow skin and eyes; he had severe diarrhea; his skin itched terribly, especially while in bed at night; and he kept losing weight.
Tests in a German hospital revealed a mass near his pancreas.
“I thought, ‘Well, I guess this is it.’ My information was that pancreatic cancer means death. Pretty quick, I started sending emails telling people goodbye,” Speegle said. “It’s been good. I got 80 good ones out of it.”
He spent 18 days in a hospital in Germany. By then, he had lost 50 pounds and had no appetite.
“I was really close to being finished,” Speegle said.
Meanwhile, in Dorr, Michigan, Speegle’s ex-wife and her husband, Merridy and Greg Jeffery, researched the best doctors in the world to treat pancreatic cancer—and they found Dr. Chung. In late February, his ex-wife flew to Germany to bring Speegle to Grand Rapids for treatment.
“He needed a friend,” Merridy said. With no insurance unless he resided in Ireland or the United States, she felt Grand Rapids would be the best place for him.
“When Howard asked for help, we knew what needed to be done,” she said. “We brought him here because we know Spectrum Health and we knew he’d get the best possible health care on every level.”
Because almost a month had passed, Dr. Chung wondered whether he would be able to proceed with surgery.
“I was concerned it would not be removable or it would have spread,” Dr. Chung said.
Thankfully, scans he ordered looked similar to those done in Germany. So, on April 9, Dr. Chung performed what’s called a Whipple procedure on Speegle. He removed part of the pancreas, part of the small intestine, part of the stomach, the bile duct, the gall bladder and surrounding lymph nodes.
Even though Speegle’s cancer had not yet spread outside the pancreas, the procedure removes more than the pancreas because it is physically connected to surrounding body parts, Dr. Chung explained.
Three doctors at the Spectrum Health Cancer Center perform about 100 Whipple procedures per year.
Just to be eligible for the surgery made Speegle fortunate. In fact, about 85 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer are not candidates for the Whipple procedure because their cancer isn’t found until it has already spread to the liver or lungs.
Because of the area of Speegle’s pancreas where the tumor was, it blocked his bile duct and caused the symptoms that sent him to the hospital in Germany. If the tumor is in another part of the pancreas, symptoms don’t arise until it has already spread, Dr. Chung said.
Speegle is back to his long walks and dreaming of the next adventure.
“It wasn’t my time,” he said.
Speegle lived with the Jefferys before and after his surgery, but now he’s living in his 1985 RV at Baldwin Oaks Campground in Hudsonville.
“It’s a little shabby, but so am I,” he said.
He plans to stay for the summer and then, in September, he’s signed up for a volunteer assignment at a historic site on the Natchez Trace Trail in southern Mississippi. After that, who knows, but perhaps he will visit family, including his twin sons, four grandchildren and sister.
Speegle calls himself a gypsy, but he worked as an engineer and rocket scientist around the world before retiring in April 2016. After retirement, he left for Europe with all of his possessions in a backpack and a carry-on bag.
“My hope is to enjoy every day I live, and if it gets to be unenjoyable, then I’m not that interested in living,” he said.
Enjoyable days for him are those when he learns something new, whether it’s about language, geography, genealogy, science or something else.
But when he leaves West Michigan, what he’ll miss most are the people, including Dr. Chung.
“I would tip my hat to Dr. Chung any day,” Speegle said. “I was so tickled to end up here.”
And Dr. Chung’s wish for him: “That he dies from natural causes … while seeing another 50 countries.”