Heide Unger stares at her husband’s portrait on the wall next to
an archway in her home. Hers was hanging below it, but when it fell
last week and the glass shattered into pieces, Dale was unnerved
and pressed her to get new frame right away. For Heide, the frame
is a small change in a household that has endured so much more. She
had been married for a year when she slipped and broke her back on
New Year’s Eve in 1998 and became dependent on a walker for 10
years. Less than a year after she stuffed the walker in the attic
for good, she was diagnosed with cancer
– stage 3 Follicular Lymphoma to be exact.
Heide Unger is sitting at the dining table waiting for her husband Dale to come home from his last day of work as captain of the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department.
She stares at his portrait on the wall next to an archway. Hers was hanging below it, but when it fell last week and the glass shattered into pieces, Dale was unnerved and pressed her to get new frame right away.
For Heide, the frame is a small change in a household that has endured so much more.
She had been married for a year when she slipped and broke her back on New Year’s Eve in 1998 and became dependent on a walker for 10 years.
Less than a year after she stuffed the walker in the attic for good, she was diagnosed with cancer – stage 3 Follicular Lymphoma to be exact.
After more than a decade of back pain and mood-changing medications, she had stopped complaining.
Unger met her husband when she was a Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher in 1996. He was a K-9 officer and had a dog named Klause, who hated being petted on the head. But when Klause saw Heide, he ran between her legs – and to everyone’s surprise – she kissed him on the head and he “stood there like it was the right thing.”
Heide still remembers her honeymoon at Lake Tahoe with Dale’s three children in 1997. It was the last vacation she would take before her breaking her back in the December of 1998.
“It hurt,” she said.
She was used to dealing with injuries and not complaining as a competitive swimmer in high school, but later on she realized she couldn’t feel her lower back where she found blisters from using a heat pad.
“I was in the worst pain,” she said. “I wasn’t even myself. I was taking all these drugs that those addicts out on the streets take.”
She went into a 15-hour surgery in 2001 and once again in January 2004. But the pain medications were her biggest burden, she said.
“After surgery, I thought she had brain damage because she was so out of it,” said Dale Unger. “It did cause some strain. She’s been through hell and it’s not just her back. There were some real hard times there because she was so medicated she wasn’t the same person I married.”
Heide had been used to pain, but she wasn’t ready for cancer.
She had taken on painting German artifacts and selling them online, and during an Oktoberfest function in 2009, she got food poisoning which never really went away. In June 2010, she noticed a lump and showed it to her husband. He drove her to the hospital right away.
“The real shock came when they did the CAT scan and the lymph node was infected. The doctor didn’t hold any punches and told us it was probably cancer,” Dale Unger said.
Heide went straight to surgery and Dale, who was busy coordinating a drug bust, went to work and waited for Heide’s call.
“It was a very stressful time and you got to stay focused,” he said.
He remembers thoughts and worries were constantly prying their way into his mind. Finally she called and told him what he already knew.
He scheduled a trip to Yosemite because Unger had never been there, and pushed his retirement to an earlier date.
“All of a sudden your whole focus just changes and you have to spend quality time doing things together. I felt horrible, I think I took it harder than she did,” Dale Unger said. “She had a real positive attitude, but then we talked about it and she said ‘you’re not allowed to be upset.’ She’s very strong, but deep down, I can’t imagine what she’s going through.”
Unger’s training as dispatcher helped her through times of stress, she said.
“My first reaction was: at least it doesn’t hurt. I feel like I’ve been through so much throughout the years, it makes you tougher. But back pain was frustration – it wasn’t a fatal disease,” Heide said.
Friends say she became very good at hiding her angst.
“She said: ‘Why not me, Jane?’ She really didn’t know what was going on. She put on a show but she was very scared,” said Jane Kelly, a friend and former neighbor.
Kelly was one of the first people Heide phoned after she was diagnosed with Follicular Lymphoma – a non-Hodgkin lymphoma – in July. A cancer survivor, Kelly understood the ordeal that would follow and she knew Unger didn’t have a clue.
“I threw up and cried because it just broke my heart because it was stage 3,” she said.
As Heide got ready for her second chemotherapy session in the first week of November, she admitted she didn’t know what was going on during her first treatment. She was told to bring a laptop and some movies for her hospitalization after the treatment.
Dale Unger unknowingly tried to cheer her up by getting her coffee from Starbucks and a box of See’s Candies, which doctors prohibit because the high levels of caffeine would unsettle her stomach. She would later find that out the hard way.
When she returned home the next day, her life seemed to be falling apart around her: Her computer crashed, the washing machine broke and she had been told she had eight to 10 years to live.
But she stopped herself before she fell too deep into depression in her typical, positive fashion.
“Now is the fun time,” she said, adding she still wonders how long it will take until she loses all of her hair.
On Oct. 23, she walked in the rain with Kelly, her husband and her brother-in-law, amidst 5,000 illuminated white, gold and red balloons as part of the Light the Night Leukemia Walk in San Jose.
“It was so huge. It was raining,” Heide said of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society event. She was surprised so many people had shown up during a San Francisco Giants playoffs game against the Philadelphia Phillies during their World Series run.
“My brother-in-law had a radio and we were all wearing Giants stuff,” Heide said.
Dale Unger was surprised Heide could walk two miles without a walker. She hadn’t been able to that for 12 years.
As he prays for a cure, he wants to spend as much quality time as he can with his wife.
“We want to go to Europe next summer,” Dale Unger said. “She’s got to get well so we can go to Europe. It will just be me and her.”
For Heide, her focus is on day-to-day activities and the challenge cancer places on those pursuits.
She still hasn’t bought a portait frame.