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Column: Oswego woman relies on faith and hope, whether providing aid to Ukraine or battling pancreatic cancer

Rene Koehler has a way of instilling faith and hope, and certainly lots of love.

The 62-year-old Oswego woman hit this trifecta in March of 2022 when a fundraiser she started collected enough to fill a small aircraft with critical supplies for the people of Ukraine, and then journeyed with this 1,500 pounds of cargo to the war-ravaged country, where she also worked for a couple weeks in an abandoned hospital-turned- refugee center south of Lviv as a certified disaster relief aide with Crisis Response International.

Koehler knows a thing or two about what it takes to fight through tough times.

Months after she returned from Ukraine, the estate seller and single mom of three adult sons was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. Which is grim news, as the five-year survival rate is only 1%, with the average patient living for about a year after that late stage diagnosis.

“Getting that news might as well be a death sentence,” says Koehler, whose brother-in-law died after six weeks and her grandpa after three months after receiving that same diagnosis.

Koehler told me she “certainly had no hope to even live long enough to see that next Christmas.” But when I met with her last week she hardly seemed on her deathbed.

Wearing a sleek dark brown wig - the only giveaway to aggressive chemo treatments - Koehler looks as vibrant as that beaming humanitarian who climbed aboard revv aviation’s King Air 350 in 2022 at the Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove, with hundreds, including Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin, waving and applauding her ascent into the sky.

If that jubilant scene in March of ′22 did not turn Koehler into some sort of local folk hero, it should have. Which made her pancreatic cancer diagnosis later that year all the more devastating.

But Koehler has a different reason to beam when we met up at Mother’s Pancake House & Restaurant in Aurora a few days ago. And yes, she was smiling wide, ready to “shout from the rooftops” the good news she received right before the New Year.

A CAT-scan showed the tumors which had so stubbornly refused to shrink – even a month earlier – were suddenly gone, making her, if not cancer free, then certainly NED (no evidence of disease).

“I’m just so emotional about it,” says Koehler who, in addition to twice-monthly rounds of a four-drug chemotherapy cocktail, also underwent Whipple surgery that removed parts of her pancreas and small intestine, as well as all her gallbladder, duodenum and bile duct, and rerouted these organs.

She also had a third of her stomach removed. “But I feel great,” says Koehler, ever so thankful for the prayers she received from all over the world.

“To anyone that questions the power of a praying community, I stand in testament and gratitude to all of you who have stood by me and continue to pour out your love and support and encouragement and faith that I will be healed, against all odds,” she wrote on her pancreatic recovery Facebook page.

Koehler is especially grateful to her army of friends, as well as complete strangers who “held me up” with prayers, blankets, soup drop-offs, inspirational plaques and cards and even a GoFundMe page to help with out-of-pocket medical bills.

Koehler and I did not plan this breakfast as an interview. And in fact, when I suggested an update for readers about her “holiday miracle,” she hesitated, until I mentioned that hers was not just a story of faith and love but now also of hope.

New and improved medical techniques, including chemo regimens and pain control, can make a difference in cancer survival rates, she insists, then also adds, “there is nothing like a prayer community ... a tribe that surrounds you and whispers you can do this ... we believe in you.”

Unfortunately, many don’t have this kind of emotional assistance, Koehler continues, noting the lack of pancreatic support groups because “the sad reality is people really don’t live long enough to form these groups.”

Still, there are others “who live for years and years,” and these, she maintains, “are the hope bearers.”

After a couple weeks of daily crying spells, Koehler says she never gave up that hope. And when the tears ceased to flow, she never stopped living.

“It has been the hardest year, absolutely,” agrees her sister Vickie Drendel, a nurse with Edward Hospital and who Koehler declares is “my best friend.”

“But it has also been the most fruitful for our family,” Drendel tells me, with trips that brought them all together to make memories and amends that otherwise would not have occurred.

“We have encountered so many incredible things,” adds Drendel, like walking a Florida beach and remarking “how neat it would be to see dolphins,” then watch as suddenly several of these mammals appeared.

At a farmers market, Koehler told her sister, ‘“We are going to dance the dance, eat the pie and buy the shoes,” recalls Drendel. “And man, did we do it.”

Drendel insists her own faith “has grown tremendously“ this past year “just by seeing God walk” with her sibling through the laughter and tears. And there’s certainly been plenty of the latter, she adds, including her grandson’s leukemia diagnosis, their father’s death and her brother-in-law’s accident that left him with traumatic brain injury.

“Through it all, Rene greets people right where they are,” says Drendel. “She pours into (friends and family) and they are pouring into her ... She is such a gift.”

And Koehler wants to keep on giving.

More than anyone, she knows the power of community. She saw it with that plane full of supplies that went from the Fox Valley to the people of Ukraine; she saw it in the way she was “lifted up” after cancer became the invader. And now she’d like to harness it again by starting a pancreatic cancer support group in this area. (Those interested can contact her at rkkoehler3@gmail.com).

After Koehler and I had breakfast, she met with her oncologist, who ordered several tests for the end of the month. And if they come back with positive results, she reported to me later, “he would talk about a break” from the chemotherapy.

It was like music to her ears.

A woman of deep faith, Koehler, however, can’t help but struggle with the “why me” questions. While I found myself back in 2022 wondering why such a giving person would get hit with this deadly diagnosis after her return from Ukraine, she is now asking herself why she’s been given this miraculous prognosis “when so many others, including women with young children,” succumb to the deadly cancer.

As we talked, it was clear neither of us had perfect answers.

“I have thought so much about that question and the only thing I keep going back to is God’s ways are mysterious, his thoughts unknowable,” she eventually says.

“I have no doubt that on the other side of this life I will know the answers ... but until then, I can rejoice.”

dcrosby@tribpub.com