Paramedic Battles Cancer with Determination and Grace

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On the front lines of medicine, Sharon Heinen has served as a Tri-County Health Care paramedic for nearly 20 years. In 2012, Sharon began her own personal fight for her life.

By Sharon Heinen, Tri-County Health Care Paramedic

Sharon Heinen Relay for Life

Brenda Windels (left) stands beside Sharon Heinen (right) at the annual Wadena County Relay for Life event at Sunnybrook Park.

Cancer, an illness I had hoped I would never have to deal with. I had seen cancer take my brother’s life … his struggles, his strength. My personal journey started at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. I had gone to find out if there was a treatment for Lymphedema, and then I was told I may have breast cancer.

It was here that the journey to fight for my life began.

The next day was filled with more tests – including another MRI which discovered cancer in not just one breast, but both. I couldn’t believe this was happening. In my head questions were spinning – “How is this possible? How am I going to get through this?” Thankfully my best friend, my mother, was with me. She continually reassured me that we would get through this. She reminded me that this would not be just my battle, but that I had an army of friends who would be there to support me.

The next step was biopsies of both breasts, and the thought of ‘I just cannot believe this is happening, why me? Why is God allowing this to happen? My mother lost a son, and now may lose a daughter to cancer … why are you doing this to my parents God?’

The results of the biopsies came back positive, and I needed to return to Mayo for a class about breast reconstruction. I did not want reconstruction – let’s just get this poison out of me, now. Surgery was scheduled for the following Monday at 6 a.m. That Sunday night I drove down to Mayo Clinic with my parents and youngest sister. Sleepless nights filled with prayers, tears and fear. The time arrived for surgery and I was prepped, hugged by my parents and sister and through the surgical doors I went. I woke up in recovery late in the afternoon with three drainage tubes and bottles secured to my chest; the IV which had been started in my left hand was now in my foot. And, the nurses were great about making sure the pain was under control. Finally, at 7 p.m. that night I was brought to my room where my family was waiting. The surgeon arrived later to tell me that the cancer on the right side did not affect my lymph nodes; unfortunately, the left side of the sentinel lymph nodes was involved, as well as 36 other lymph nodes. More tears, My God, how am I going to get through this?

The next morning after breakfast, the IV was removed and my mother was taught how to drain the bottles and keep the area clean. Once the discharge was less than five cc’s, the tubes could be removed – which could take up to a month and so I prepared for the ride back to Richmond as I would now be living with my parents for the rest of my journey. Initially, my first few weeks were confined to a recliner with walks around the house every so often to prevent blood clots. Pain was minimal, and now I was feeling like a burden needing to have my mother take care of me.

On the bright side, I received hundreds of cards, plants and care packages from friends, strangers, co-workers and firefighters I trained with. It was unbelievable to receive so many cards every day. To this day, I have a large tote filled with cards that I still have and pull out to read on my tough days.

About a month later, the discharge is finally under five cc’s and the tubes can come out. The local clinic and hospital refused to take the tubes out, so I called Tri-County Health Care’s Emergency Room and asked the ER nurse if they would remove the tubes if I were to Sharon Heinen hugging at benefitgo there. The ride to Wadena would take 90 minutes versus the ride to Rochester which would take closer to three hours. Thankfully, Tri-County staff did not let me down. My mother drove me to Wadena, and what an awesome experience I had. When I arrived, I walked into the lobby and some of my co-workers were there to greet me with gentle hugs and positive energy. For the first time I felt like, yes, I can get through this. The tubes were finally removed and so I went out for dinner with many of my friends joining us there. I realized just how many people were there to help me get through this.

The next step was chemotherapy. Every other Monday, starting in June, one of my family members would drive me from Richmond to Mayo Clinic where I would sit in a recliner for about six hours as the poison was pumped into my body in the hopes the cancer cells would be destroyed. The side effects were numerous and I was given medication that would help with the pain, as well as the nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. I was fortunate that between treatments I was usually only really ill for about two days.

The second week of treatments, as I was showering, my hair fell out in clumps. I do not have words for how I felt. My mother came into the bathroom to check on me to find me sitting there with my hair in my hands. Again, she held me telling me that it would be okay – even though at the time I felt like  a freak, some kind of monster. And, so she shaved off the rest of my hair. What an awful day.

After six treatments (so 12 weeks), chemo was finally over. And now I needed to give my body a chance to recover. So, for the next month I would spend time between my parents’ house and my home in Wadena.

I will never forget walking into Tri-County and Dr. Steve Davis coming down the hallway, giving me a hug. Again, the tears flowed. I felt like a freak, with no hair, and Dr. Davis made me feel beautiful.

Sharon Heinen smiling at benefit

Sharon visits with guests at a benefit organized in her honor.

During this time a benefit was also held in September in St. Ann’s. People from Richmond rented a bus and drove up here. People from all over the area attended. And, again the fears flowed. But, this time not because of pain and embarrassment, but because of all the love I felt.

The last part of my journey started that October with 36 radiation treatments. The treatments were every day, except Saturday or Sunday. The radiation made me very tired, weak and most days were spent on the recliner sleeping. As the treatments continued, the burns from the radiation were becoming more tender and the redness was getting worse. I asked my doctor in charge of radiation about giving me something for pain, or something to put on the burns that were now becoming very uncomfortable. Without success, I was back to Tri-County as I did not know what to do. Thankfully, Dr. Shaneen was able to see me and scheduled me with Rose Lorentz. They were my heroes who finally gave me something for the pain and a cream to put on the burns. In early November, I finally finished my last treatment.

December 26, 2012 … nine months after the cancer was discovered, I finally returned to work for a few hours at a time to build my bSharon Heinen at benefitody strength back up, and also just to get back into the swing of working on an ambulance again. I received so much support from Administration telling me I will have a job when this was all over and my manager Allen, again reassuring me that they will work with me at my pace. My co-workers were there to support me as I would get frustrated when it seemed like I would never get back to working a shift as I would sometimes become so exhausted that I had to take naps. Finally, in January I was able to take over my shifts.

This journey lasted about 10 months. When I went to Rochester the first time, the farmers were in the fields working the soil getting ready to plant their corn and oats. I had seen young calves running around, enjoying the warmth that spring was bringing. The next time I drove to Wadena to work, the fields were harvested, the little calves were now young stock. And, when I thought about it, I realized that I had lost 9-10 months of my life fighting this battle called cancer.

But, with the bad, came a lot of good as I realized how lucky I am to have so many people who also walked this journey with me. And, to all of you, I say “Thank you!”

Sharon large group Relay for Life

The Tri-County Health Care Relay for Life team is a snapshot example of the many people who rallied with Sharon in her fight against breast cancer.


About the Author: 

Sharon Heinen

Sharon Heinen, a valued Tri-County Health Care Paramedic since 1996.

Sharon was born in 1963 at St. Cloud Hospital, is the oldest of five children born to Eugene and Bernice and was raised on a dairy farm between Richmond and Cold Spring, MN. Sharon came to Wadena in 1995 to attend Wadena Technical college to be a Paramedic. She graduated in 1996 and was hired in November of 1996 at TCHC as a Paramedic. Sharon lives in Wadena with her cats, Blue and Bandit. She also teaches Confirmation Class at St. John’s in Bluffton and is a Communion Minister there as well. Sharon still continues to spend as much time as possible at the farm raising sheep, which she has been doing since 1990. In her free time, Sharon enjoys fishing, riding four-wheeler and spending time with family. 

Sharon Heinen EMS class

Sharon Heinen, Tri-County Paramedic, teaches kids basic safety skills at an annual Babysitting Clinic