Small-town librarian fights cancer in North Dakota

Jackie Walby of South Heart is writing her own story with help from her community

Librarian in a chair reads a picture book to young elementary school children sitting on the floor.

Ten miles west of Dickinson, North Dakota, lies the small town of South Heart. Population: roughly 400.

And in that town is a school that serves students all the way from pre-K through their senior year. Whether those students want a quiet place to study, a new book recommendation, or just to enjoy storytime, they can go to the library and find Jackie Walby.

Tough test

Walby is in her 27th year as an educator, but last summer she started her toughest test.

“Every year the FFA does a blood drive, and I’ve given every year,” said Walby. “It was never a big deal to me. And then I got a letter from them after the FFA drive here and said I was not allowed to give blood until I had my ferritin levels checked by a doctor.”

So she went by the book, scheduling a check-up, and eventually a colonoscopy.

“My husband dropped me off. Less than an hour later they called him back. And when I woke up, they gave me the news that they found a mass,” said Walby.

She would be diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer, requiring surgery and chemotherapy right down the road at Sanford Health.

“I’m at the age where you start thinking about retirement. And my husband and I both said we have to be in a place where there’s a hospital so you can retire. Well, we were already there,” said Walby.

Rural care

Her surgery required a bit of travel to Sanford Bismarck about an hour and a half east. But after her procedure, Jackie’s oncologist, Dr. Peter Kurniali, didn’t hesitate to send her to the Sanford clinic in Dickinson for her chemotherapy.

“To have these satellite locations will certainly be helpful,” said Dr. Kurniali. “For example, treatment that is every two weeks, like what Jackie is having, just to have it there, I think that helps a lot. That has cut down the travel two, three hours every treatment day, for example.”

Jackie also says she feels cared for by Sanford nurses and doctors, no matter which location she’s visiting.

“The nurses called me every day to calm me down and make sure I wasn’t using ‘Dr. Google’ and freaking myself out,” said Walby with a laugh. “I met Dr. Kurniali right after that and I just really felt cared for right away. And then the nurses were unbelievable, like I said. They must be really trained to sense someone’s anxiety. They knew exactly what to say to calm me down. I wouldn’t even think about going anywhere else.”

Next chapters

Ringing the bell at Sanford is a symbolic gesture for all cancer patients who complete their final chemotherapy treatment. Walby is scheduled to complete her 12th and final round in mid-January, and while she says her treatment has been a struggle, she does look forward to spending that moment with her husband, Dan, and turning the page.

“Right before (treatment) number eight, I was struggling with thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ It was so hard. And I got to see someone else ring the bell and I was like, ‘I can do that and I want to do that.’ And then she was with her husband, and my husband’s been through this with me, and he deserves that too,” Walby said through tears.

The small town of South Heart has rallied for Walby, raising funds through t-shirt sales with her name on them. The students support her as well. And just down the road, so does her rural health care provider.

“When the patient trusts the process, they trust pretty much their life and how to fight this deadly disease to us,” said Dr. Kurniali. “It’s always an honor for us medical oncologists and all the oncology team to help them throughout this journey.”

“Of all the things I’ve learned, there are good people in this world that do good things for people for no reason whatsoever. They just do ’em,” said Walby. “Where we live, people take care of each other.”

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Posted In Bismarck, Cancer, Cancer Screenings, Cancer Treatments, Dickinson, Here for all. Here for good., Rural Health