Last September, Lori Huestis got a frightening call. Her husband, Lee Huestis, had been taken from Flathead High School, where he teaches, in an ambulance.
Emergency services suspected a heart attack, but Lori had reason to fear that it might be something else. Twenty-two years earlier, Lee had survived a battle with esophageal cancer, which required chemotherapy and an intense surgery.
Although Lee had been cancer-free for many years now, “when you have cancer once, it’s always in the back of your mind: Could it be [cancer] again?” Lori said.
Lee’s doctors realized it wasn’t a heart attack and started to look at other possibilities. Through a series of tests, they noticed a problem with his esophagus. They weren’t sure what the issue was, but “of course, we got very nervous at that point,” Lori said.
She called the oncologist in Billings who’d overseen her husband’s cancer care years ago. The doctor said it would be surprising if the cancer returned now, decades after Lee’s recovery. But Lee’s health continued to worsen.
Although the cancer diagnosis wasn’t yet confirmed, it was clear that recovery would require another difficult surgery. The procedure would be complicated by Lee’s prior surgery, which had already removed part of his esophagus.
For such a surgery, Lori knew they would need the best possible physicians. She began to research hospitals that did the procedure and ultimately found a surgeon at Johns Hopkins. In November, the family traveled to Baltimore to see the hospital and meet the surgeon.
While the family was there, the surgeon ran more tests. He confirmed that Lee did, in fact, have cancer again — this time, Stage 3 esophageal cancer.
Following his diagnosis, the family returned to Montana, where Lee underwent months of grueling chemotherapy. Throughout the process, Lee continued to work at Flathead High as much as he could.
“He just loves his students,” Lori said. “I think he needed them as much as they needed him.”
In mid-May, after receiving the surgeon’s clearance, the family moved to Baltimore for Lee’s surgery. The procedure, which removed Lee’s stomach and part of his esophagus, took a total of 18 hours, split into two days.
After the surgery, Lee suffered numerous complications that kept him in the hospital longer then expected. Today, he lives in an apartment connected to the hospital and is still attached to a feeding tube 20 hours a day. It’s unclear whether he will need further chemotherapy.
Throughout the lengthy process of surgery and recovery, Lori said, the Huestis family has greatly benefited from support from their community.
“We’ve had so much love and support, from both of our schools … our church, our family,” Lori said. “It’s taken a village.”
Soon after the Huestis family left for Baltimore, friends and fellow teachers got together to figure out the best way to support them. Along with the group, Lissy Boar, a teacher at Glacier High School, decided to start a GoFundMe page for Lee.
“We wanted to do something to support them, even though we couldn’t be out there with them,” Boar said.
They knew the costs of Lee’s treatment were extensive and wanted to help the family cope with the financial burden of medical bills and living expenses in another city.
“The reality is cancer touches everything,” Lori said. “You’re not only balancing your mortgage and everything normally, but then you’re away from home for three months … You’re trying to balance all of these things, and it’s hard.”
So far, the GoFundMe has raised $10,000 to help the family. But the page offers more than just financial assistance. GoFundMe has become a platform for the community to express their support.
“They write comments that are just really uplifting,” Lori said. “People from all over who we’ve never met before have sent cards.”
For the Huestis family, the support they’ve received through the page has made a huge difference.
“We could never say thanks enough,” Lori said.
The GoFundMe page to benefit Lee Huestis and his family can be accessed at https://www.gofundme.com/f/Huestis-family.