The Paul Detweiler Story: May 13th, 1993 – June 13th, 2013
Courtesy of Sue Herman, Health Services
Gettysburg College is a unique center of higher education and learning. This uniqueness stems from a number of sources, many of which are well known not only within the Gettysburg College community, but also within the greater academic community throughout the nation. But perhaps what most defines Gettysburg College is its graduates: the men and women that apply their Gettysburg College experience in the service of family, industry, community, state, and country. The role of distinguished Gettysburg College graduates is legend.
However, this article is not about those exemplary Alumni; rather, it is about a student who aspired to graduate from Gettysburg College but was unable to complete his college experience before cancer cut his academic studies and his life short. If his disease had not taken his life he almost certainly would have joined the ranks of Gettysburg College’s most storied graduates – this is his story.
Paul Detweiler was a 20-year-old Gettysburg College sophomore who died June 13, 2013 due to complications of brain cancer he courageously battled with the support of family and friends over the previous 19 months. He wanted nothing more than the experience of attending Gettysburg College in hopes of pursuing a career path that would allow him, as he would say, “make a difference in the world he lived.” For the few of us that were privileged to know Paul while he attended Gettysburg College, it was clear that this was not just a grandiose goal but that Paul had all good intentions of achieving his goals in life baring any obstacles.
I share Paul’s story with the Gettysburg College community because, as Pastor Butch Kuykendall stated in his eulogy during Paul’s memorial service, “We come this day, we gather, to celebrate the life of an incredibly beautiful person.” Pastor Butch (as he is affectionately known) graciously shared a copy of his memorial to Paul with me. At the beginning of his eulogy, he shared that Paul was known for making lists and often these lists were on his smartphone. At the top of the list was a quote from Elizabeth Kubler-Ross:
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
I first met Paul early in the Fall of 2011, during the first semester of his freshman year at Gettysburg College. Paul walked into the college’s Health Service with, as he stated, “the worse headache of his life.” His examination revealed there was something terribly wrong going on in his head. Our visit with each other was brief since he needed emergency care.
Paul was subsequently medically evacuated from Gettysburg Hospital Emergency Department to the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center where a medical team diagnosed Paul with a cancerous brain tumor, which had grown invasively and was now presenting life-threatening symptoms.
Following Paul’s initial diagnosis, he underwent three major brain surgeries with some periods of radiation and chemotherapy after the first two surgeries. After Paul’s first brain surgery he and his family were optimistic that Paul could defeat his cancer. Paul made an amazing recovery and was able to return to the Gettysburg campus for the Fall semester of 2012. It was during this semester that I developed a patient/healthcare provider relationship with Paul and an appreciation of his courage and perseverance.
Paul came to see me twice a month that Fall semester for medical monitoring. I looked forward to our visits. He was so happy to be back on campus, was adjusting well to campus life, and loved his courses. He was medically stable so his biweekly visits were consumed with catching me up on his Gettysburg College experience. But he was also always concerned about my wellbeing.
On preparing to share Paul’s story with the college community, I asked his parents to share with me why Paul chose Gettysburg College. He was academically and athletically talented which offered him a variety of college choices. They reminded me that Paul was known for his lists. Paul and his father, David, made up a chart of pros and cons of every college they visited and that had accepted Paul.
David said Paul was very practical and everything about Gettysburg, from the financial package, academic profile, distance from home, presidential scholarship offered to him, and the size of the campus all seemed to make the most practical sense.
When he and his family visited Gettysburg College he fell in love with the beautiful campus, liked the town itself, and also all of the history surrounding the college and the Gettysburg area. As if that wasn’t enough to persuade him, he also wanted to make his grandmother proud by attending the college his grandfather, C. Dale Detweiler, attended, loved, and had graduated from.
His initial thoughts were to major in history and Gettysburg has a great reputation for its history curriculum, but after his diagnosis of brain cancer and exposure to different medical professionals while recovering from his surgery, Paul decided to major in Health Sciences. He was hoping to, someday, be a Physician’s Assistant. Paul was thrilled to be back on campus and it showed in his excellent academic performance – making the Dean’s List.
Highlights of this semester were participating in the Iota Omicron chapter of Alpha Phi Omega, a national co-ed service fraternity. The brotherhood brings together students with an interest in community service, serving the brotherhood, campus, and Gettysburg community. He also was excited to be a student participant in the filming of the Cory Weissman story 1,000 to 1 that took place on campus during the Fall semester of 2012; he admired Cory’s courage in battling a brain illness.
Paul had to have MRIs periodically. This past January 2013, Paul’s MRI revealed small residual tumor growth resulting in Paul’s second surgery. Some tumor tissue remained post-operatively. Paul qualified for an experimental chemo trial that showed promise in suppressing and halting tumors of this nature. Although Paul was disappointed when he could not return to campus, his recovery from the second surgery and tolerance of the chemotherapy trial went very well. His goal was to get well and return to his studies at Gettysburg College.
His courage and his positive outlook never faltered. Pastor Butch mentioned that even though the cancer could have made him angry and bitter, Paul decided to embrace life even more. He learned from his experience with his illness. If it was possible, it made him an even more beautiful person.
Paul also kept a journal where he wrote many things, and one entry that really stuck out to the Pastor was:
“Emptiness, often times associated with blight, deficiency, loneliness and desolation is easy to accept as a mostly negative character. But, not for me. You see, I feel an emptiness every single day. In an emptiness just behind my right eye, where my invader once sank its fangs into me, there is a void. It reminds me to live, love, cherish my days, and to always, always remember that I am and have been blessed.”
Unfortunately, Paul’s subsequent MRI in mid-May revealed that the tumor was growing aggressively. Given the severity of the tumor, Paul discussed the pros and cons of treatment options with his family and subsequently made the decision to have a third surgery. I spoke to Paul the day before his surgery and he was optimistic with no signs of fear or sadness in his voice. Paul had met all requirements to reenter Gettysburg College in the Fall of 2013. His desire to return to school was a motivating factor for his getting through the surgery, chemotherapy, and rehab.
Paul developed complications from his third surgery. I received a phone call from his father, David, on Friday June 7, stating that Paul’s health was progressively deteriorating. An MRI revealed that the cancer had spread throughout his brain. Paul became terminal and was discharged from the University of Penn Hospital. He went home to be cared for by his family.
I haven’t said much about his family; however they cannot be understated. His immediate family consists of his mother Julie, his father Dave, and his sister Erin, a 23-year-old oncology nurse. I was able to visit with Paul the day before he died. His family had provided Paul with as normal of a home setting as possible.
There were few tears while I was there (although many were held back); Paul was aware of his surroundings and obviously knew everyone, although he was unable to communicate well and was very frail. There was some laughter as family and friends shared Paul’s childhood ventures. His father was so proud of Paul. He shared with me how much pleasure he took having Paul attend Gettysburg College and do so well during the one semester he completed. His father stated again that Paul had wanted to return more than anything.
His mother reiterated Paul’s strong desire to return to Gettysburg College and complete his education, even if in the future the tumor may shorten his life. His sister lovingly provided him nursing care and I saw such sibling love in their eyes.
They all shared with me that Paul didn’t want to die before he could make a positive impact with his life. I spent some time alone with Paul trying to let him know how his courage and perseverance inspired me and all those he came in contact with in such a profound way. Paul died at home that night surrounded by his loving family.
One last message from Paul’s lists of quotes:
“I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about NOT knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.”