Amber and Dustin Murphy spend time with daughter Kenlie, 7, and son Branson, 3, at Hospice of the Valley in Gilbert, Ariz., on Dec. 17, 2012. Dustin is dying from stage 4 colon cancer.
(Photo: Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic)
By LINDSEY COLLOM The Arizona Republic
Dustin Murphy is 33 years old and in the final stages of a losing battle with colon cancer.
Despite the fog of sedation, pain, and anxiety over his condition, Dustin has been more concerned about his wife of 11 years and their two young children than his own plight.
He now has little energy to speak and can barely move from his bed. But earlier this year, he found the strength to make one last noble gesture as a father and husband to take care of the family that means everything to him, whose comfort and happiness have been his life's work.
His wife, Amber, says he is the "best provider. He's always asking how he can help me even though he can't get out of bed."
Dustin had felt pain in his stomach for years, well before his diagnosis. He finally saw a doctor, who found a hardening in his bowel but told him, "You're 30. It's probably food poisoning," Amber recalled.
Six months passed and Dustin's condition worsened. A second opinion found that it was cancer, the same disease that had claimed Dustin's father when Dustin was in high school.
He was in surgery within a week of the diagnosis, but the cancer wasn't done with him.
"It came back raging," Amber said. "We've been fighting that ever since."
The family has struggled financially throughout the ordeal. Dustin continued to work as an IT manager until he went on long-term disability a little more than a year ago.
COBRA, or the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allowed the Murphys to pay out of pocket to continue health insurance with Dustin's employer. But when their COBRA coverage ended, the Murphys had to purchase other insurance for Dustin, which Amber said is costly and leaves her and their children -- Kenlie, 7, and Branson, 3 -- uninsured.
Amber, a self-described stay-at-home mom even before her babies were born, recently took a job in loan processing that allows her to work off-site. They've mostly lived off Social Security payments, and their immediate family has helped to pay mounting medical bills.
And then, amid all the despondency, they received a gift that would ease their financial burdens, thanks to Dustin's quiet efforts to help his family a few months earlier.
The family will have at least one less bill in 2013, after the Gradient Gives Back Foundation, a charitable arm of Gradient Financial Group, awarded the Murphys of San Tan Valley a full year of mortgage or lease payments.
Unbeknownst to Amber, Dustin applied for the award in April. He outlined the family's plight in a section of the application titled "My Story."
"The last year has turned our entire life upside down," he began. "In October 2010, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. I am 32 years old with a growing family and just finally made a name for myself in my career. I have had to undergo months of chemotherapy treatment, as well as the costs associated with it. My family has stepped up and helped with some of the financial portion, but the money is slowly dwindling. I have worked extremely hard to get where I am in life. I spent seven years working and going to school to finally gain my Master's Degree, only to have to put that life on hold and attempt to save my life. I've always been the one to give. It's been very humbling to have this experience where I have to receive as well. We've got a beautiful family that deserves all the happiness I can provide. Unfortunately, I have had to go on disability and have a hard time providing as I used to be able to."
Gradient marketing director Gretchen Beatty said the foundation's board was touched by the strength and determination the Murphys have shown in the face of difficulty. Each year, the foundation helps several families facing "dire circumstances in both their personal and financial lives," Beatty said. More than 500 applications were submitted this year.
"The Murphy family continue to battle the effects of cancer that has afflicted Mr. Murphy at such a young age and that has challenged the entire family," Beatty said. "Mr. Murphy is currently in a hospice facility, and Mrs. Murphy fights to maintain the home, care for their two children, and visit Mr. Murphy on a daily basis. This is a very deserving family, and we know they can use the help."
Before delivering word to the Murphys on Dec. 10, one of Gradient's local partners, Integrity Financial Group South West, enlisted the help of the San Tan Valley Chamber of Commerce. Within hours, chamber President Tisha Castillo said, about a dozen local businesses came forward with hundreds of dollars in gift certificates for food and services. There were offers to interview Amber for a job and watch the kids free of charge whenever she needed a break, Castillo said.
"We want to help get her back into the community and make sure she's OK," Castillo added.
For now, Amber tries to spend as much time as she can at Dustin's side.
Earlier this week, at Lund Family Hospice Home in Gilbert, Amber crawled into Dustin's bed and snuggled close to him, her face inches from his. The children played noisily on the outdoor patio as the couple gazed at a small Christmas tree in the corner that Amber had decorated with family photos of happier, healthier times.
The Murphys say they're awed by the help they've received from Gradient and the community. They weren't expecting it, and Dustin said the relief has allowed them to spend more time together.
"Christmas is all about family relationships. Honestly, I may not be able to enjoy my family much longer," he whispered, Amber wiping away the tears rolling down his cheeks. "I want to enjoy them as much as I can."