Even though Sheldon returned from deployment in “pass PT test” shape, in November while running in Colorado’s cold weather a sharp pain struck him in his side. “It was the earliest indication that something was wrong,” he said. And for the first time in his twenty-five-year military career, Sheldon failed a physical fitness test. “I was misdiagnosed as having exercise-induced asthma,” he said.
“Sheldon was really down and out. Felt ashamed and discouraged, a military officer failing a PT test,“ said Salena. “He was concerned about what people thought, an issue of identifying with what you do. He struggled doing PT, would come home and plop into a chair, exhausted.”
By January Sheldon moved from 1st Brigade to 3rd Brigade, a move that would soon prove providential. He developed a severe sore throat and was forced to sleep on the couch in order to breathe. On 19 February, Sheldon returned home from PT depleted. Unable to walk upstairs, he could only crawl up on his hands and knees. “He was having trouble breathing and his chest hurt,” recalls Salena. A battery of tests at ER diagnosed Sheldon with Acute Myeloid Leukemia. He was immediately admitted to Memorial Hospital’s oncology ward in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
During devotions with God earlier that day, Salena recalled, “He led me to the Gospel account of the woman with the issue of blood, where Jesus tells the woman, ‘Your faith has made you well’ (Mark 5:25–34). I had no idea then how that Scripture would soon play out in our lives.”
Within twenty-four hours Sheldon was taken to ICU because his lungs were filling with blood; the situation was so dire he had to be intubated twice. And his oxygen was so low that nurses said later they didn’t know how he was even cognitive.
His liver and kidneys then began failing. The advanced leukemia required continual blood and platelet infusions, so Sheldon’s immunity was compromised. Few working in ICU expected him to live.
“I prayed, ‘Father, if it’s Sheldon’s time, then I need peace; if not I stand on your Word.’ I heard the Lord say, ‘He shall live and not die.’ I held on for dear life to that verse from Psalm 118:17. I knew my Father had a purpose.” —Salena Duffy
Says Salena, “It was very dark, very rushed because things were constantly changing. Treatment decisions had to be made, and we weren’t sure if the outcome of those decisions might mean he wouldn’t be coming home.”
While the battle for Sheldon’s life waged on in ICU, an unseen spiritual battle was being waged in prayer closets and in community gatherings, connected straight to the Great Physician, seated at the right hand of God Almighty in heaven.
Sheldon’s 3rd Brigade move placed him and his family in a unique position where command teams, family readiness groups, and two chaplains could minister to them during Sheldon’s hospital stay. His uncle Clarence, a minister, established a Facebook prayer page where people around the world prayed for them.
Amy Wooten sent the prayer message out to the OCF community in Colorado Springs where they and OCF leaders Arnie and Lois Ahnfeldt prayed for the family. Sarah Ball, president of PWOC at Fort Carson, coordinated meals. The Duffys felt sustained by the prayers of believers, “many that we didn’t even know.”
“I prayed, ‘Father, if it’s Sheldon’s time, then I need peace; if not I stand on your Word.’ I heard the Lord say, ‘He shall live and not die.’ I held on for dear life to that verse from Psalm 118:17. I knew my Father had a purpose.”
Tasked with making difficult health care decisions for Sheldon, all while trying “to make everyday as normal as possible” for their sons Daniel and Samuel—who’s autistic—Salena’s prior military service as well as training for officers’ wives shaped in her the spiritual depth that “you don’t prepare for a storm in a storm. I already knew my Commander’s voice, His character, and that I could trust Him.
“With Samuel especially, routine change is not good. He knew something was going on, but didn’t know what—except Daddy was gone. I just put my military spouse’s hat back on and kept going forward,” said Salena.
Once Salena knew her husband would survive, she “told our boys I was in the hospital recovering from a life threatening sickness,“ said Sheldon.
“I still remember the first day I saw my boys after nearly thirty days in the hospital. Daniel approached gingerly, with tears in his eyes. Samuel stood and just stared. I was quite a sight—skinny, darkened skin, jaundiced eyes, and a dialysis port sticking out of my neck. A big smile lit up on his face and he jumped on the bed with me.”
Reflecting on it later, Salena observed, “I realized I had PTSD from literally watching my husband fade away, as do many caring for a loved one in trauma. It’s not unlike battlefield trauma. The smells, sights and sounds of the machines are indelibly imprinted on my memory forever.”
“My near-death experience has truly transformed my life,” Sheldon said. “I have first-hand experience that God is real and active in my life. God can work miracles no matter how sick a person is or how negative the situation may be. He can truly cause all things to work out for good. I’ve seen ordinary people truly be the hands and feet of Christ as He used them to care for my wife and me during this difficult time of our lives.”