By Celine Klosterman
HILLS — For spouses Mona and Terry Ball, waging a so-far successful battle against her leukemia has been a faith-strengthening reminder of the power of prayer.
Members of St. Joseph Parish in Hills, the Balls said an August bone marrow transplant is producing healthy new blood cells, and biopsies no longer detect cancer.
“It’s the power of prayer and the power of the medical team together,” Terry said.
He and Mona have been grateful for both since she was diagnosed in spring 2011 with acute myeloid leukemia, a disease in which abnormal cells in bone marrow replace healthy cells. A longtime blood donor, Mona went to a doctor for tests in March after a sample of blood she’d donated turned out to be abnormal. After hematologists examined a few bone marrow samples, the Balls received the difficult news.
“I was blown away. I cried pretty much nonstop,” Mona said.
Admitted to University of Iowa Hospitals, she was told to plan to stay a few weeks. “We were immediately surrounded by our Catholic faith community,” Terry recalled. The spouses’ pastor, Father Bill Kneemiller, greeted them at Mona’s hospital room the morning she entered and brought Communion daily. Father Lou Leonhardt, a retired pastor of St. Joseph’s, and Carol Kaalberg, parish life administrator, also spent time with her when Terry was teaching at Robert Lucas Elementary in Iowa City. Mona, who like Terry has more than three decades of teaching experience, found a substitute to take over her teaching duties in the Iowa City Community School District for the spring semester.
Doctors told the Balls there was a 30 percent chance of putting Mona’s cancer in remission. She received chemotherapy treatments and, later, blood transfusions.
“If we didn’t get Mona into remission, she would not have lived more than one to two years,” Terry said. “The pathologist said there was nothing in her bone marrow but cancer cells.”
“I knew God was in control,” Mona said. “For the first time, I realized I had no control over my life. I gave it over to the Lord, which brought me a sense of peace.”
Healing Masses celebrated by Msgr. Marvin Mottet, Fr. Kneemiller and Father Troy Richmond in Hills and Washington also offered physical, emotional and spiritual support, the Balls said. IlaMae Hanisch, coordinator of adult and family formation and lay ministry for the Diocese of Davenport, visited the couple to pray. Classmates in the parish life administrator courses that Terry took through the diocese also offered prayerful support, he said.
Still, Mona missed being able to play piano and organ during Masses at St. Joseph’s, where Terry leads the choir. “I wasn’t able to play music for 19 weeks,” she said. “That was the main thing I wanted to do: get back to church.”
In mid-May, she and Terry received promising news: all her cancer cells had been eradicated. But to be cured, she’d need a bone marrow transplant. After none of her siblings turned out to be a match, a donor was found on a national bone marrow registry – where Mona had once been registered as a donor.
On the Balls’ 38th wedding anniversary, Aug. 25, 2011, she received the transplant. University hospital chaplains Father Vitolds Valainis and Father Bill Kaska prayed with her as she recovered over 23 days.
“I prayed ceaselessly; it was like a retreat,” Mona recalled. She drew spiritual strength from reading Scripture and the diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska and praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and the rosary.
“Faith totally anchored us,” Terry said. “We had never faced anything to this degree before. Our faith even became stronger because we recognized the power of prayer.”
Since receiving the donation of bone marrow, Mona has been taking immune system-suppressing drugs to prevent the transplanted cells from attacking her body. To protect her health, she wears a dental mask when playing music at St. Joseph’s, where she was thrilled to minister during three Christmas Masses.
She doesn’t expect to return to teaching, a profession she loved. But because she’s no longer working full-time, Terry is applying to the Diocese of Davenport’s deacon formation program. “We knew that if we were both teaching, we couldn’t do it all,” Terry said. “But now the opportunity is there.”
It will be two years before doctors can determine whether Mona’s been cured, she said. Already, she feels grateful for what God has given her and wants to give back. “I’d like to help people going in for cancer treatments — pray for them, visit with them, give them rides,” she said.
“We want to support others as they’ve supported us,” Terry said. Mona has received nearly 350 cards, and family, friends, fellow parishioners and his Knights of Columbus council 14385 at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City have all showed solidarity with the couple.
“We have a firm foundation and know we can make it through a crisis,” Terry said. “We’ve made it together.”