For more than 30 years, Sam and Shelly Hubbard have enjoyed each other’s company from the time they met when attending a small South Dakota high school to spending time with their children and grandchildren to working together at Churchill County Middle School.
Little did they know, though, that when they exchanged their wedding vows in the early 1980s that the minister’s phrase “for better or worse” would test their support and faith for each other.
Testing their love
For the Hubbards, though, this year’s Valentine’s Day symbolizes how their love for each other has been tested daily. Almost one year ago, Shelly complained of perpetual tiredness, but after doctors conducted tests, they discovered in June she had hyperplastic myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), which can develop severe anemia and eventually cause a person to require a bone marrow transplant.
Shelly, though, received platelets and several blood transfusions during the summer with the warning that her condition could lead into leukemia. From what he learned from the diagnosis and doctor’s explanation, Sam said a worse case scenario would be the onset of leukemia before she could have a transplant to replace the non-generating blood cells.
The inevitable happened — much to their chagrin — when Shelly developed leukemia in October after discussions with her physician centered on her having a transplant sometime in the autumn at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center.
The Hubbards encountered the first of many setbacks in Shelly’s recovery.
“The doctor said it’s (hyperplastic MDS) gone into leukemia, and Shelly was going to start chemotherapy. I said we’d go to Fallon and get some things and come back, but the doctor said she’s starting chemo today,” Sam said, with Shelly snuggled by his side in their living room.
Instead of leaving Reno and traveling an hour east to Fallon with Shelly, Sam checked her into Renown Medical Center to begin treatment. For five days Shelly received strong doses of chemo that, according to Sam, tired her immensely.
“My cells were not maturing, and I did not have white or red blood cells,” Shelly said, explaining the quick need for treatment.
Although the chemo was doing its job and preparing Shelly to receive a bone marrow transplant at a later date, her life dangerously took a turn for the worse that pushed her to the edge of death.
“In the meantime, she got this infection … that was the worst setback,” Sam explained.
Shelly noticed a small cut on her left heal, but what followed was a life-threatening ordeal that caused her to spend 50 days at Renown. Sepsis, which can be a deadly infection, started eating the inside of her foot. Sam said the infection was so severe that he could actually see her Achilles tendon. During the time Shelly required hospitalization, Sam and his family prayed that she would overcome the infection.
“We were told three times she was not going to make it,” Sam said, his voice softening.
A moment of silence fell over the living room.
When one of their sons visited, he was crying when he bent over to kiss his mother, Sam remembered. Although she couldn’t respond to his affection, Shelly said later she knew something was terribly wrong.
Finally, after almost two months of around-the-clock care, the infection broke, and Shelly rallied by gaining some of the strength she lost during the earlier chemo treatments. With Shelly requiring constant care at Renown, Sam visited his son Mark and daughter-in-law Bree at their apartment and usually showered there or bunked out before returning to the hospital to see his wife of almost 32 years.
Shelly was discharged from Renown the day before Thanksgiving. With the doctor giving Shelly the green light to return to her Fallon home, he asked her about a primary caregiver.
“I want no one taking care of me other than Sam,” Shelly replied without hesitation.
Sam, who had enough sick days from the Churchill County School District to leave the classroom during Shelly’s fight, kept vigil with her every day at the hospital room and also planned to be with her 24 hours a day at their Fallon home once she was released.
Even after Shelly’s fight for her life, a terrible twist of fate occurred in December when she and Sam traveled to Renown. Sam drove up to the valet near the infusion center, helped Shelly out of the car and headed into the building. Once they walked through the automatic doors, a hospital employee stopped the Hubbards and informed them and many more that they weren’t allowed to leave the medical campus because of a lockdown.
A lone gunman had fired a shotgun in the Center for Advance Medicine floor, killing a doctor and critically wounding another physician. The gunman then turned the weapon on himself.
“We walked by the lab area, which was side open, but then we went to the infusion room and it was closed because of the lockdown,” Sam explained.
After the lockdown lifted, the Hubbards, along with the other patients and employees, left the building and drove home to Mark’s apartment.
On Christmas Eve, Sam and Shelly returned to Renown for her to receive a skin graft on the infected foot.
After the new year, another setback occurred that would push back the transplant for several more months. Blisters on her shin, which had not been healing, remained open sores for five weeks. Last week, her surgeon operated on her leg to clean out any lingering infection so that she could heal properly. That wasn’t all that faced Shelley. Her chemotherapy treatments, which Sam said were bridging treatments preparing her for the eventual transplant, turned out to be five long days of receiving the potent medicine instead of one day a week for five weeks. Each treatment zapped Shelly of more energy.
Sam said the surgery and treatment depressed her, and she was having a difficult time fighting the effects of all the treatments. Throughout each and every treatment and the surgeries, though, both Sam and Shelly are hopeful that sometime in March she will be able to receive the bone marrow transplant.
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
To borrow a phrase from a popular song of the 1970s, love will keep them together as they face this latest chapter in their lives.
Sam and Shelly both attended Spearfish (S.D.) High School and then attended Black Hills State College (now university) where Sam received a degree in math and chemistry, and Shelly earned an Associate’s Degree in Business Secretarial.
They first met, though, when they were performing in the high school play, “Meet Me at the Fair.”
“My partner had a hard time showing up for the dances, and Shelly’s did too,” Sam recalled. “They (the directors) put us to dance together.”
That incident began to kindle a little romance from Sam.
“I started dating her before I graduated from high school,” Sam said, glancing over to Shelly.
Sam then took Shelly on their second date — a “cool” date according to him — and they went to the movies to see Indiana Jones “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
“The movie starts and not too far in, she leaves and I’m thinking she’s going to the restroom … but she didn’t return,” Sam said. “So I go to the candy counter and see her talking to an ex-boyfriend. I said, ‘You’re missing all the good parts,’ and then she replies, ‘I’ve already seen it.’”
Undaunted, Sam, who graduated a year earlier than Shelly, asked Shelly out again and then again and soon, they were inseparable.
“We spent quite a lot of time together that summer, quite a few dates,” Shelly said. “He would usually wait for me after work, and then we would walk to his car.”
Sam nonchalantly turned to Shelly on the couch.
“She loved me,” he said, drawing a smile from her.
“Sam was trying to get me to marry him, and it worked,” Shelly responded. “He was nice, very kind. We had fun. We were friends first, just good friends who had fun together. We did simple things that were fun like bike riding or picnics. We enjoyed each other’s company.”
Later that summer, Sam proposed to Shelly, but they waited to marry on July 17, 1982, the same year she graduated from high school.
“I thought she was the cutest thing,” Sam said.
LEAVING SOUTH DAKOTA
After Sam graduated from Black Hills State in 1987, he was offered a teaching job at Churchill County Junior High School as a math teacher. The Hubbards pondered their choices … to stay in South Dakota and be closer to family or set out to Fallon, almost 1,500 miles from western South Dakota for a teaching job that paid much more.
They also had to think of their two sons who were born while Sam was finishing his degree.
Then the decision came: They decided to move to Nevada.
“It was hard because of the distance we were away from everyone,” Shelly said of the move. “But it also made our relationship stronger because there was no one else to rely on … just each other and the boys.”
The Hubbards, though, thought they would stay in Fallon for one year and then move back to Spearfish. In February 1988, Sam, though, signed a letter of intent to return to the junior high school in case he couldn’t find a teaching job in South Dakota. Then, in May at the annual teachers’ banquet, Sam received the Rookie of the Year award, the hook that persuaded the Hubbards to remain in Fallon.
“Well, I’ve been signing them (letters of intent) for 27 years now,” Sam said. “This has been a very good place to raise our kids.”
Sam has taught at the same school since 1987, while Shelly, who previously worked at an elementary school, transferred to the junior high school in 1998. Working together has given them the opportunity to go to work together and have the same vacations. It has also given Sam the opportunity to take time off from teaching to take care of Shelly. They have also been overwhelmed with the help they have received from their friends.
“We can’t say enough about the help we have received,” Shelly said. “We want to thank everyone.”
This Valentine’s Day, though, will be special for the entire Hubbard family. Their four children — Mark, Aaron, Shayla and Tyler — and their families are in Fallon for the weekend and will be with their parents on this special day. But the message of true love rings from Sam’s heart every day he comforts Shelly.
“Last night I was thinking about this,” he said of their love and daily struggles. “We are putting each other’s needs before ours.”