When Howard and Myra Van Mersbergen’s oldest daughter went out for the high school Cross Country team, Myra told Howard, “It would be cool to be a runner!” She talked to the Cross Country coach and came home with a couch to 5k training program. She asked her circle of friends hoping to find someone who would begin the training program, but no one wanted to take up running with her. Finally, Howard reluctantly gave in and consented to do the 12 week training program with his wife. Every day, the couple went out and did a combination walk/run together. On the final day of the program, Howard and Myra ran for a full 30 minutes together. When they got back to their driveway, Myra turned to her husband and said, “I don’t like running. I am not going to do it anymore.” Howard relays this story about his wife with laughter in his voice. He had not ever intended upon becoming a runner, but he tried it because he loved Myra and she had wanted to run. Since that date, many years ago, he has run countless races and marathons. Now, he is running for Project Purple in honor of his beloved wife, Myra. Howard was devastated to lose Myra, the love of his life, to pancreatic cancer in 2014.
Howard Van Mersbergen first met Myra, in 1980, while they were both students at the same college. The couple, who were married shortly after graduation, raised three daughters together. They were a very close and loving couple who shared a deep Christian faith. It is their Christian faith that Howard credits with helping them get through Myra’s cancer diagnosis. “Our faith was instrumental in getting us through Myra’s cancer journey. It has been instrumental for me in the healing process,” Howard explains.
Howard remembers the day his wife called in April, 2013. It was 4:20 pm on a Friday afternoon. She said, “Howard, I just talked to my doctor. She thinks I have cancer.” Howard hopped in the car and immediately went home to be with Myra. “I was begging God that it was not cancer and that, if it was, he would heal her.” That night, Howard and Myra gathered their adult daughters, Laura, Kristin, and Sarah, and their husbands, to break the news that the doctor suspected that Myra had cancer. It was the most difficult conversation they had ever had in their lives, but Howard and Myra did not like to keep secrets from their children.
The following week, the couple met with the doctor who confirmed their worst fears. Myra had stage IV pancreatic cancer. The only treatment option available to Myra was chemotherapy. Right away, they obtained palliative care for Myra to help keep her comfortable. Though the first weeks were difficult,once the medication protocol was established Myra experienced significant symptom relief. The palliative care was outstanding and for much of the next ten months, she had a good quality of life. Howard and Myra enjoyed traveling during this time. Happily, they were able to make three trips to Denver to visit their oldest daughter. “It strikes me as odd, but I have a lot of fond memories of that ten month journey,” Howard says, reflecting on those final months. Myra passed away on February 13th, 2014. The couple had been married for over 33 years.
“I knew it would be hard, but it is way harder than I thought it would be to live without her. It has been 19 months since she passed away. I started journaling right after her memorial service. I attended grief counseling and support groups,” Howard explains. Reflecting on his loving wife, Howard says, “Myra loved our kids so much. She considered her sons-in-laws to be her sons. She loved her grandchildren so dearly.” When the couple found out they were going to be grandparents for the first time, they sat down and had a conversation to determine exactly what kind of grandparents they wanted to be. “She very much wanted to be a positive influences in their grandchildren’s lives. One of the worst parts of the diagnosis was not being able to have that impact on the grandchildren’s lives. It was heartbreaking to know that she would not see them grow up.” The Van Mersbergens had 5 grandchildren when Myra passed away. Their sixth had not yet been born.
During these difficult months without Myra, Howard has turned to running. He never would have started running if it were not for Myra, and her support over the years was instrumental to his success. Since 2005, Howard has run 20 marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Myra was always his biggest cheerleader and only missed one or two of Howard’s race finishes.
When Myra was ill, she told Howard that she wanted him to run the Boston Marathon again. He had run Boston five times previously and it was a special race for both of them. Though he ran very little during the final months of Myra’s life, he honored her wishes and registered for the race. His sixth Boston, the only one where Myra was not physically present, was emotionally challenging for Howard. As he rounded the final turn onto Boylston Street, he became overwhelmed knowing that the love of his life was not at her usual spot near the finish line. He stopped 50 yards from the finish line to acknowledge Myra, and then went on to finish. This has become a ritual for Howard at every race since.
Howard first discovered Project Purple at the New York City half-marathon. He was walking through the expo when he saw the Project Purple booth. Immediately, the charity’s mission caught his eye, so he initiated a conversation with founder Dino Verrelli. Now Howard is running the Des Moines Marathon through the Project Purple Pioneer Program. What makes this event extra-special for Howard is that three members of his family are joining him in running the event: his sister Sharon, his brother Wayne, and his niece Kristin, who also lost her grandfather to pancreatic cancer. Sharon and Wayne are both running their first half-marathons and Kristin is running her first full marathon in Des Moines.
When asked why she wanted to run her first half with Project Purple, Kristin Van Mersbergen replied, “Howard is an inspiration in so many ways. He has encouraged me in my training and taught me a lot of things about running and life along the way. When he shared the mission of Project Purple, I had to join. Aunt Myra and my Grandpa were two individuals with big hearts for helping others. Running with Project Purple is a way I can contribute to spreading awareness and researching a cure for this cancer that has impacted our family and hopefully help other families in the future avoid the difficult battle against pancreatic cancer.”
Sharon Roose has also been inspired to run by Howard. She explains, “My brother, Howard, has always impressed me with his training and marathons he has run. He encouraged me to run the Des Moines half marathon. Howard told me about Project Purple and I decided this was a great way to participate in my first half marathon and honor Howard’s wife, Myra. Myra lost her battle with pancreatic cancer on February 13, 2014. After watching Myra and her family suffer through pancreatic cancer, I pray for a cure to this disease. By running for Project Purple, I hope to join in the cause of spreading awareness and raising funds to find a cure.
Wayne Van Mersbergen has two reasons for wanting to run the half-marathon. He says, “Last year in August, I suffered a serious heart attack. After quadruple bypass surgery, I am recovering and one of my goals is to complete a half-marathon. This goal has helped me to get into better physical shape. My brother runs marathons and my daughter-in-law will be running her first marathon. My sister will also be completing the half-marathon, so there is a lot of support and encouragement in my family. A more important goal to participate with Project Purple is to help raise money to support research for pancreatic cancer. One and a half years ago, my sister-in-law, Myra, died from this disease. When you lose a loved one, there is more incentive to help find a cure and this is something I can do to provide support.”
For Howard, running to raise money for Project Purple is deeply personal. He hopes to raise money to help fund a cure, so that other families will not have to experience what his has experienced. “I believe that I honor God by giving and helping others. When I can tie that with my running, it gives extra meaning to my running.” Howard, Sharon, Wayne and Kristin will all be running for Project Purple to honor Myra, the woman who loved so many so deeply, and who strove to honor God throughout her life.
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