Leukemia and God               Harry Durgin

To the Class of 1974 on the occasion of our 40th Graduation Reunion, to my friends and fellow cadets, I share one of my stories that has shaped me significantly.


In the ACE program, flying the Mighty Tweet, each closed traffic pattern I performed I got progressively worse. (Not my flying, rather my body.) I was all but blacking out. I told my buddy copilot that I couldn’t do it anymore so he landed the T-37 and we taxied back in, not knowing that it would be my last flight.


We had been married some 8 months and I had been telling my wife that my mile times were slowing down (I was running marathons at the time). So when this happened in the air I realized that there was something going on. It was a morning flight so I got in to see the doctor that same morning and they told me they would get back to me at the latest that afternoon. I returned to Stan Eval where I worked. When I received the call from the hospital later that day I had forgotten that I had even been there that morning because I was feeling fine.


They asked me to stop by to get some further testing done. I looked at my watch and hoped that I would not be late for dinner (A habit that I’m still trying to break). I found the nurse, who immediately tried to put one of those white plastic bracelets on me.  I jerked my wrist away asking what he thought he was doing? He explained, per order of Dr So-and-so, I was to be admitted to Ward 4 for further testing. I submitted when he showed me a colonel’s signature.


On the way to the 4th Ward I grabbed a telephone and called my commander, telling him that the hospital was up to their old tricks and had me handcuffed to a bed. This was serious because I was supposed to pull alert the following morning. My boss told me not to worry about it but to keep him in the loop on what happened.


So there I was in Ward 4, sitting on my bed in my uniform looking around at all the sick people wondering what was I getting into? Then I was thinking, “Shoot, I’m for sure going to be late for dinner now.” About this time, a different doctor walked in. She was a major and obviously in charge of something.


She said, “Capt Durgin?” I hopped off my bed and said, “That’s me.” She continued, “I need to be frank with you. You have leukemia and we’re going to air-evac you to Wilford Hall, San Antonio tomorrow.” (I like “frank” but her bedside manner was a bit rough.)


I told her without hesitating that I needed to call my squadron commander to tell him that he was going to need to get another pilot to fill my slot. The doctor was incredulous at my statement. She asked me, “Did you hear what I just told you?” I said “Yes, I have leukemia and you’re air-evac-ing me to Wilford Hall. And I said I need to call my commander to tell him he needs to get someone to fill my slot tomorrow. I’ll be right back.”


I got my commander on the phone and told him verbatim what I had just found out. His response, “Oh God!” I immediately said, “Sir, I am already talking to Him. Please don’t forget to get someone to fill in for me. I have to go now and get a hold of my wife.”


As I’m dialing my bride of 8 months, emotions I never knew I had began to surface. Robin answered and said sweetly that dinner was pretty much ready. I decided to tell her straight out and then deal with it as things progressed. Robin and I both had journeyed with Christ since our college days. But this was a little beyond our experience. We decided right there on the phone that we would be thankful to God and not demand answers. We would wait and see what He was up to.


Fast forward: I arrived at Wilford Hall where they got my leukemia under wraps. The prognosis: 2 ½ years life expectancy, period. This is a one-way street. Get your house in order. Good luck. I was medically retired.


It’s funny looking back. The Navigators, an international Christian outfit that helps people in all walks of life figure out who God is and how He might give us that life that we so deeply want but eludes our grasp, were always asking me to consider leaving the Air Force and working full-time with their organization. I told them on more than one occasion, “No, thank you very much. I believe I’m right where God wants me. I love this job and I love the people I work with.” Then I got married and they asked the two of us if we would consider their offer again. Our answer was the same. A few months later I was grounded with a death sentence.


We figured we could at least work for The Navigators with the time I had remaining. Believe it or not, the next two years were super rewarding even though I was a literal time-bomb. Robin and I so enjoyed helping people find their God-compass and make wise choices for their lives.


Then at a routine follow-up with the hospital at Andrews AFB a doctor told me about an experimental procedure called a Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT) and would I be interested? At this point I had a few months left on my ticker. The doctor told me it was a 50-50 shot. In fact, there were 4 patients with my type of leukemia (CML) that had gone through this transplant. Two were still living.


Fast forward: I went to Seattle for the transplant. I am still living. I hope to see a bunch of you guys at our 40th reunion in October!


Ah, but back to the story. Two years after the transplant I finally finished all my medication protocols and the doctors said I was cured. This timing coincided perfectly with the opportunity to go to Latin America with The Navigators with our best friends and co-workers. We spent the next 23 years as missionaries in 4 different countries. (Costa Rica, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.) The transplant left me infertile so we were able to adopt 3 infants during our time there in Latin America. Now, all in their 20’s, they each live near us here in Denver. As I am writing this, I’m watching the time as I have to pick up 2 of my old buddies from Brazil at the airport. We’re doing some mountain biking tomorrow. The adventure never stops. God never stops. He continues to invite me to join Him in the Story He’s writing!


My (our) whole life has been an incredible adventure because as a cadet back in 1970 I told God I wanted to follow Him. He has taken me (us) by the hand all my days and has never let me down even though many times I was in the dark, waiting and hoping in Him.


Bill Van Horn

9491 South Johnson Court 

Littleton, CO 80127


303-948-8435   work

303-596-3615   cell


USAFA Class of '74 - published a book of our experiences for our 40th reunion!



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USAFA '74 Class Reunion Book