Minister retains faith in battle with cancer

January 06, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

HAMPSTEAD -- Gambling doesn't come easy to this Baptist minister. Especially with odds worse than 20,000-to-1 and his life at stake.

But for the Rev. Bert Benz, sociable, expansive pastor of Hampstead's Faith Baptist Church, the alternative is refusing to play God's game. That, for a minister, would be out of the question.

So the tall, seemingly robust and cheerful 47-year-old, who during his quarter-century in the ministry has counseled and comforted many who were dying, must swallow his pride and appeal to the public for money and for blood in the slim hope his fatal illness will be checked.

Mr. Benz was diagnosed in August, after a routine physical, with chronic myelogenous leukemia, a rare form of cancer.

It is found in two of 100,000 people tested, usually those between the ages of 30 and 50.

On Thursday, Mr. Benz's doctors gave him some welcome news: Increasing his level of chemotherapy had significantly reduced his white blood cell count. It was a temporary victory, though. The grim long-term prognosis was unchanged. His only chance of exceeding a life expectancy of three to five years is with a bone marrow transplant.

The catch is finding a donor whose marrow matches his. Testing the blood of the members of his family failed to produce such a match, and now the experts put his chance of locating a public donor at 1 in 20,000.

Even if such a person is found, there is only a 25 percent probability of surviving what Mr. Benz calls the "awesome" transplant procedure, which involves destruction of the bone marrow producing the cancerous blood cells and replacing it with a donor's healthy marrow.

Despite the odds, he believes God expects him to continue the search. His wife, Linda, a teacher at Fallston Senior High School, agrees. She has encouraged him by declaring, "We will not deny the diagnosis. We will defy the disease."

Said Mr. Benz, "I thought that was neat."

Though unsuccessful so far, the search for a donor has confirmed the minister's faith in the goodness of friends and "total strangers" alike.

Almost 1,000 Marylanders, most of whom he had never met, responded to three drives in Carroll County, two in Bel Air and one in Salisbury. (Another drive is scheduled this week in Tampa, Fla., where the minister was born.) At each event, volunteers give a pint of blood plus a vial to be tested for a possible match with his.

He is philosophical about the failure of these tests to provide a bone marrow donor for him.

"There may be a match for someone else in some other part of the country," he said. "Also, we are helping the Red Cross to increase the blood supply."

The local results are added to data on 242,000 possible donors in a national bone marrow registry. Among them were six whose initial blood tests indicated a match with Mr. Benz, but follow-up tests proved this wrong.

The search goes on in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and England as well as this country. Mr. Benz expects to learn Jan. 24 whether any of 11 possible matches that turned up in London remains positive after the necessary second screenings.

On Friday, 93 people turned out at the regional Southern Baptist headquarters in Columbia for a final blood drive and bone marrow screening for Mr. Benz paid for by the Red Cross in Maryland.

4 Its results will not be known for several weeks.

Meanwhile, he must begin to raise the $75 cost of each future screening. He also must begin to raise $50,000 to supplement his insurance coverage in case the hoped-for transplant at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington occurs.

He has raised only about $4,000 so far.

Mr. Benz faces his added financial burden with the same equanimity that characterized his acceptance of the news he was dying.

"The Red Cross says I have to go out and raise money for testing. The hospital says I have to raise medical expenses not covered by insurance."

Laughing, he added, "If I do all that, I won't have time to be sick."

Leukemia is testing his theology, too.

"You've prayed for healing, haven't you?" he was asked by a member of his congregation, who was surprised when he answered, "No."

"I am prepared to accept what Gods wants," Mr. Benz said. "Telling God to heal me is telling God how to do his business. The idea that you will have instantaneous healing if your faith is strong enough is a bunch of hogwash."

He recalled the prayer with which he readied himself to hear the results of the blood tests last August: "Lord, you make this diagnosis whatever you want it to be for your glory."

His Hampstead congregation, which began with four members five years ago and now numbers 100, plans to break ground for a combination church and day-care center on a 17-acre site on Harvey Gummel Road in the spring. "They are like my family, extremely close, very supportive," the ex-Marine pastor proudly said of his flock.

For them, his wife, his daughters -- Shannon, 16, and Lauren, 11 -- and for his own sake, he manages to maintain good spirits most of the time.

He worries, of course, about how his family will cope without a husband and father, and thoughts of missing the twilight years with his wife and the adulthood of his children can depress him. But he is encouraged by their efforts to cope, including Lauren's succinct appraisal: "Maybe God has a better place for Daddy to live."

Surrounded by Christmas wreaths and in the light of a twinkling Christmas tree, Mr. Benz summed up, "The holidays have been a little more emotional than usual.

"We're doing real well now."

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