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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Features

Adam’s Story

Loving Support System Helps Student Survive a Deadly Disease

“On February 28, 2001, the ground in Seattle shook. Sidewalks rolled. Buildings swayed, and windows shattered. But on the sixth floor of Seattle Pacific University’s Hill Hall, the 6.8 earthquake wasn’t the only cause for trembling. The previous day, 20-year-old Adam Jennings had been diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.

This wasn’t just another assignment for photographer John Keatley. “Adam was one of the first people I met when I came to SPU,” he says. “We lived together on sixth floor Hill Hall and hung out together just about every night.” Keatley documented Jennings’ battle with leukemia “so that Adam could look at the pictures some day and see how far he’d come.”

Adam Jennings was an ordinary 18-year-old when he arrived at Seattle Pacific University from Richland, Washington, in September 1999. The biggest challenge for the freshman electrical engineering student was how to fit study time into an ever-growing social life. After all, he had 40 new best friends — the guys on the sixth floor of Hill Hall — and a new girlfriend, pre-nursing student Jamie Frey. College was as it should be.

But in February of his sophomore year, Jennings couldn’t shake nagging flu-like symptoms. He finally went to the Group Health Clinic and, after a routine blood draw, was told that some of his cells were “premature.” “I cried,” he remembers. “It was bad — that’s all I knew.”

Jennings returned to Hill Hall and told his roommate, Andy Bettger, and his peer advisor, Jeremy Hillard. He called his parents and Frey. He cried some more.

“Fear just consumed me,” says Jennings’ mother, Judy. “My heart went out to my little boy crying in his dorm room, having to deal with this all alone.” She soon learned that her son wasn’t alone at all. In fact, in Hill 639 the Adam Jennings support system was beginning to take shape.

“That was probably our most emotional night,” recalls Bettger. “We prayed together and cried together. I didn’t really believe the test would prove leukemia, but I wanted Adam to know I was taking this seriously.” The next day, at the Group Health Clinic, Dr. Steven Ginsberg told Jennings that the results were positive. He had acute lymphocytic leukemia and would need to start chemotherapy immediately. “I was lost,” remembers Jennings. “I had no idea what would happen; I just knew the future didn’t look good.”

“Our first thought was that we would do this in Seattle, because we wanted the best doctors and the best possible treatment for our son,” says Adam’s father, Rick Jennings. “But Dr. Ginsberg encouraged us to take Adam home. He thought it would be better for him and for us.” Jennings returned to Hill Hall for one last night on campus. The SPU community responded, giving Adam a send-off of support, encouragement — and video games. “Andy called all my friends and organized the guys on the floor to play Super Smash Brothers all night,” says Jennings. “As we played, people came in to say goodbye. It was great — but I couldn’t stop thinking that I may never get to come back to school, that I would miss out on so much.”

The next day, the Nisqually earthquake rocked the Pacific Northwest, and Jennings left SPU. “I remember we said that the earthquake was God mourning for Adam,” says Bettger.

Back home in Richland, Jennings began chemotherapy, and though he may have been gone from Seattle Pacific, he wasn’t forgotten. “The students were committed to praying for him and providing emotional support,” says Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering Don Peter.

“In class one day, a whole group of students showed up with shaved heads to model support for Adam while he was in chemo,” remembers Jennings’ professor and academic advisor, Director of Engineering Programs Anthony Donaldson. “It had a profound effect on those who witnessed it — including me.”

Jennings laughs when he remembers Bettger telling him about the students’ gesture of solidarity: “He came to visit and brought a card with tufts of everybody’s hair. I mean, I was amazed, really touched. Those guys were great.”

Even with strong support and a solid faith, six months of chemotherapy was more difficult than Jennings could have imagined. “The first cycle was so long,” says Jennings. “I just felt worthless. And I knew I had seven more cycles to go.

“I really tried to be positive and latched onto 1 Peter 1:6-7: ‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith … may result in praise, glory, and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.’”

Frey managed to visit Jennings in Richland three times that spring, but, come summer, she was there nearly every weekend. Her visits, remembers Jennings, were bright spots during the dark days of chemotherapy. After one trip, her dad picked her up from the train station and, seeing the emotional toll the situation was taking on his daughter, said, “Maybe you two should just be friends. Maybe you should think about the possibility of dating someone else?” Her answer was a simple “No.”

Jennings returned to Seattle Pacific in January 2002, believing, hoping, that leukemia was behind him. Months later, while on Whidbey Island with his “Alternative Energies” class, he had a seizure, revealing the return of leukemia. “The seizure was one of the scariest moments for me,” recalls Jennings. “I thought maybe I was dying. But when I woke up, I think it [the leukemia] was easier to accept, because I knew what to expect.”

With one week left in Autumn Quarter 2002, Jennings was rushed back to Richland, and his support system was already mobilizing. “There were so many people praying, encouraging, and contributing to our spiritual and physical needs,” says Judy Jennings. “People all over the world were praying for Adam.”

In November 2002, Jennings’ parents began sending regular email updates to family and friends, including SPU students, faculty, and staff. Before long, there were more than 130 recipients, all supporting Jennings and, in turn, taking inspiration from his story. “Each email was almost like a devotional,” remembers Donaldson.

Desperate for hope, Jennings and his family were positive about a new treatment. But an allergic reaction to the new radiation resulted in severe, acute pancreatitis; intensive care; and, ultimately, an airlift to Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital. “Out of everything we went through, this was the worst time for me,” Frey says. “I knew there was a real possibility he might die.”

Jennings’ family and SPU friends rallied by his side, and the storm passed. After four weeks at Virginia Mason, he was released. In April 2003, four and a half years after they had started dating, atop the Space Needle, the scene of their first date, Jennings proposed and Frey said “Yes.” “The future looked good,” says Jennings. “I loved Jamie, and she’d been waiting long enough.”

But their joy was overshadowed by Jennings’ second relapse. Doctors said he needed a bone marrow transplant to save his life. “During this time, it was the Body of Christ that kept us from slipping into fear or pity and kept us so focused on God,” says Judy Jennings. “A woman I hardly knew set up a group of people to bring meals every week for Rick and our daughter, Anna, while Adam and I lived in Seattle. It was a small miracle knowing my family’s needs were taken care of.”

And, once again, the Seattle Pacific community showed up in a big way. Now living near Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, only a mile from campus, Jennings had a regular flow of faithful SPU visitors. “They were the highlight of my week,” he says.

In September 2003, a perfect bone marrow match was found. “It was really a miracle,” Jennings says. “Most people would be lucky to have 20-30 possible donor matches. I had 120.”

After a September 16 transplant, Jennings remained hospitalized for 100 days. On the 100th day — Christmas Day — he left the hospital. Frey and Jennings didn’t waste any time. Less than two months later, on Valentine’s Day 2004, they were married.

Two years after his transplant, doctors gave Jennings’ health an “all-clear.” “We thought Adam would be tested again at the two-year mark,” says Rick Jennings. “Instead, we found out there was no intent to test him since he was doing so well.” Finally, after more than five years, it looked as though Adam Jennings had survived leukemia once and for all. And more than survived — he had emerged victorious with a mature faith, a loving wife and family, and friendships strengthened by adversity.

“When I look back on everything we’ve gone through,” says Frey, “I’m thankful for every bit of it because of how it has shaped our relationships with each other, our families, our friends, and, ultimately, God.” She is now a nurse at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital, and Jennings is completing his electrical engineering degree at SPU. He’ll receive his long-awaited diploma this June.

“I have made some amazing friends here, and I will always be in touch with them,” says Jennings. “This whole process made me realize what a community Christianity is, and how God intended that for us.” His friends look back on Jennings’ journey with love and admiration. “I remember trying to encourage and support Adam,” says Bettger, who now works at a movie and video marketing firm. “But every time he ended up encouraging me, making me choke up.”

“My son taught me so much about attitude,” echoes Judy Jennings. “When I consider all that Adam went through, I remember a guy with a smile on his face, one who took time to look at the simple pleasures of life and rejoice in what God had given him for that day.”

Such an attitude might be hard to fathom, but Jennings’ mom has an explanation: “For Adam, it was all those people who supported him, including all those believers at SPU — Jamie, Andy, his friends, his professors — that got him through. I believe it was almost a privilege to go through what we did to be able to see the blessing and hand of God in each of our lives.”

— By Lindsey Bickel
— PHOTOS BY john keatley

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