Pastor's Terminal Illness Helps Him Comfort The Dying

Marrow Transplant Critical To Survival

February 06, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

When the Rev. Bert Benz counsels dying people, there's one thing they can't say.

They can't tell him he doesn't understand. Because the 47-year-old Baptist minister is dying, too.

Last August, the pastor of Hampstead's Faith Baptist Church was diagnosed with a rare cancer called chronic myelogenous leukemia.

Without a bone marrow transplant, he likely won't live more than threeto five years, Benz says. His chances of finding a public donor are 1 in 20,000. If he finds a donor, there's a 25 percent chance that the operation would be successful.

Benz is doing his best to fight the disease, though after seven donor drives, he still hasn't found someone with a matching genetic makeup.

Thirty Southern Baptist churches, the Arundel Baptist Association, are promoting another drive from 2 to 8 p.m. tomorrow at Severn Covenant Church, 20 Gambrills Road.

The drive is critical for Benz, who apparently has a marrow factor rarer than most -- of the 242,000 people in the National Bone Marrow Bank, not one has matched. A screening in his Florida hometown failed. In Maryland, six screenings testing 1,100 people turned up nothing.

"It really has become a life-or-death match," Benz says.

TheRed Cross is sponsoring the drive, covering the cost of the marrow screening. In exchange, potential donors give a pint of blood plus a vial to be tested for a possible match, explains Ann Fiocco of the RedCross.

Donors are encouraged to make an appointment by calling Heritage Baptist Church at 269-0848, although they may show up during the blood drive without an appointment.

"I'm a little concerned, because we aren't getting calls," Fiocco says.

But Benz remains calm.

"If God wants to heal me, he will. If he doesn't, he's going to use my illness in some way," says the genial pastor. "He already has."

Though the donor drives haven't helped him, they have turned up several matches for other people, he says.

The illness also helps him relate better to others facing death. Shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, Benz started volunteering as a chaplain in the Carroll County Hospice program.

"When I go into the homes of terminally ill patients, they respond, because I know how they feel," he says. "People are a little surprised at first; they say 'You have your problems, I don't know if I should talk about mine.' But I tell them I volunteered after I found out I was sick."

He still preaches every Sunday and visits his own church members. And he insists the diagnosis -- and the outcome -- will be for God's glory.

"I'm doing everything I can, but I am prepared to accept what God wants," says Benz cheerfully. "I had one bad day, crying jags, but mostly I'm taking a day at a time."

But even the pastor's faith and good spirits can't prevent the effects of the disease from slowly taking over his life. "I used to go till midnight and get up at 5:30 in the morning. Now I'm real tired by early afternoon," Benz says.

The minister has to raise $75 for each future screening. If a donor is found, he'll need another $50,000 for the transplant at Georgetown University Hospital.

And there have been other hard things -- little twists stemming from his position as a pastor, such as the pressure from zealous Christians who advise him to seek healing.

"Everybody keeps saying, 'You'rea minister. Don't you think God ought to heal you? My answer is to look at the Bible, at Job, Paul. Paul asked God to heal a physical ailment and God's answer was that his grace was sufficient."

"TellingGod to heal me is telling God how to do his business. It's hogwash to say that you will have instantaneous healing if your faith is strong enough."

Yet another hardship is the painful irony of the church's shepherd -- a former Marine -- being the one who needs help.

"The congregation is like my family, so they're going through the same grief process as my wife and daughters," muses Benz. "As their pastor, my task is to help them with the grief. But I'm the one they're grieving over."

He and his wife Linda, a teacher at Fallston Senior High School, also realize that if something happens to him, she would lose the support system of the church community. "My wife is doing well right now, but she's thinking how she would feel to stay in a church where her husband has filled the pulpit for 20 years -- it would be hard," Benz says.

But the pastor praises his wife, his daughters-- Shannon, 16, and Lauren, 11 -- and his 100-member congregation ashaving been "very close and supportive."

With their encouragement, he continues the search through an International Registry in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and England as well as in this country.

Local churches heard about the Carroll County minister and volunteered to help out with another drive, explains Phil Bush, pastorof Heritage Baptist in Annapolis.

"We'd like to give him some assistance, since he's a fellow pastor. We really encourage people to help him find a match," Bush says.

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