Wednesday, November 25th, 2015
Do you have a personal hero? I’m talking about a hero that has struck a chord in your life – someone who has changed you for the better.
My personal hero is Ellen Kurtz, and her story is one of bravery, hope, and so much love. I hope you can spare a few minutes to read about her story, as I’m sure it will inspire you like it has inspired me.
The morning I first spoke with Ellen was totally frantic on my part. I had tons of errands to run, doggies who were acting up, and I had so little time to accomplish what I needed to. I ran off to do the errands and forgot my wallet, so I had to turn around and drive home. The traffic was ridiculous and I spent way more time out than I wanted to. I was having a “bad” day. I finally returned home, stressed and frustrated, to find an e-mail from a woman named Ellen. Upon reading this message, my entire day changed.
“… I am a young, single woman, almost 28 to be exact. I have been fighting cancer for the past 3 1/2 years. I’ve had three different series of chemo and radiation and a stem cell transplant. With all that already behind me, you can guess that the options left for me are few…Even though I am just finishing this round of chemo treatments, I look very healthy, feel well for the most part, and was blessed to keep all my hair this time through chemo! Because of the fact that my time left here could be short, I want some pictures taken of me that I can give to family and friends as their lasting memories of me. I want a photographer who can capture the passion and joy with which I live the amazing journey of life and the joy with which I look forward to possibly going Home.”
My “bad” day instantly melted away. I read every single word as if they were ingrained into my soul, and my outlook on life started changing right there. This woman, who is so strong and brave, wants to create lasting memories for her family – that’s so amazing! But why did she choose me? I was flattered, but I had to know what drew her to me. As I kept reading, the answer became clear: God brought us together.
“That’s why finding a photographer who believes in God is important to me. Only someone like that would be able to understand why I am not afraid to die and that I have great joy when I think of the possibility of going Home forever. I want someone who can capture that joy with me so the photographs left for those I love are ones that capture the joy of life and the hope of Heaven.”
I was completely floored and it took me a while to fully process Ellen’s words. I was shocked and honored, but scared at the same time. What if I couldn’t create what she was looking for? I had a mental battle with myself for a full day to process the everything and soak it all in. One thing I couldn’t deny was the feeling of being drawn to Ellen. God was pushing me her way. I had to meet her!
After a few e-mails back and forth, we finally had the chance to meet. I spotted Ellen at that little coffee shop table and my heart instantly became happy. Talking to her was intimidating at first – After all, I had so many questions to ask, but my nerves held me in check. However, Ellen has a way of just making you feel so comfortable just in normal conversation. Oh how I wish you all could speak to Ellen some day! Soon I started asking questions about her cancer and her life dealing with it, and after seeing and feeling her positivity, I began to open up and rapid-fire tough, thought-provoking questions at her. How do you stay so positive? How has your life changed? What struggles have you had? So. Many. Questions!
Ellen had a perfect response for everything. It was like she knew what I was going to ask and had a perfectly articulate response for each question I had. Nothing was off the table and what I learned about Ellen and her story has changed me forever…
Ellen was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Diffuse, Large B-cell Lymphoma in May 2012 after struggling with an intense illness for 6 months. The mass of cancer was in her lungs and around her heart, causing fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, weight loss, and night sweats. After 6 doses of chemotherapy, things were looking up for Ellen! Her health had improved, she felt better, and her cancer was considered stable. She played a “wait and watch” approach, getting checked every 3 months for about a year and a half.
Ellen works as an accountant and used this time to develop and pursue her young career. She thoroughly enjoyed learning all that she could! But cancer had also changed her outlook on life. The fact that she was no longer promised a tomorrow gave her an uncomfortable sense of urgency. She enjoyed her job as an accountant, but knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. She sums it up so well:
“I wanted to give to people out of all that God and others had given to me during my cancer journey. I wanted to do something that mattered for eternity. I wanted to live the life God wanted me to live, and not wistfully think “Someday!” while I wasted what few years I had. So I did a lot of soul searching and praying.”
After much thought and prayer, Ellen decided to pursue her dream of being a pilot and serving God through missions! She applied for, and was accepted to, Moody Bible Institute in Washington state for their missionary pilot program. She made plans to attend the fall semester of 2014 and was so excited that she was going to live her dream!
But then it all came to a screeching halt. Ellen’s cancer became active again in May 2014, and had shown significant growth. She cancelled all of her plans of moving to the west coast and chose to go through 3 more doses of chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant a few months later. Between this therapy and the radiation late last year, her cancer finally went into remission.
5 months had gone by and a new year had arrived, but Ellen began to feel ill again. A routine CAT scan revealed that the cancer was back. Ellen’s cancer was no longer was in remission.
From February to just before I met her, she was undergoing another treatment of chemo. But at this point, Ellen wasn’t dealing with cancer, she was THRIVING with it. She took full advantage of her time and scheduled a road trip with her brother to see Niagara Falls and out to Ohio as well. Being wrapped in God’s creation and visiting natural wonders was what she absolutely wanted to do!
Ellen also found solace in a multi-week women’s seminar/retreat where a pivotal event in her journey occurred. Prior to that retreat, her longing and desire to go to Heaven was the strongest feeling she had. She was ready to go meet God. Through the retreat, however, she realized that living life while you can represents God when lived through Him. She wanted to have another chance at this whole life thing. Ellen wanted to live. But Ellen also knew that she still had to deal with living with cancer. That’s when she realized – she was going to live the rest of her life with joy, passion, and authenticity with whatever time she has left on Earth!
At the seminar, she learned of a woman who had passed away of cancer a few years earlier, who planned her funeral as she would have her own wedding. Ellen loved the thought!
“Of course it’s my wedding! Would I not be going Home to the Love of my life, married to Him forever? Why not plan it that way?”
Ellen told me that her entire outlook on life has changed. She understands her life may be cut short by the cancer, but she also told me something incredibly profound – that this body is just a temporary placement before reaching Heaven. For me, this really put everything into perspective. Suddenly my “bad” days aren’t so bad anymore. I’m living and breathing in God’s creation after all!
So here I am, a photographer talking to one of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life. I’m floored, and I’m pretty sure my jaw was scraping the floor. I can’t believe how amazing this person in front of me is. I told Ellen I would absolutely be honored to take her photos. My mind was spinning, but I knew this was something I had to do. I knew I had to tell her story through the avenue that I know – photography.
Ellen’s desire of planning her funeral like her wedding gave me ideas. Let’s shoot for the Moon for this session! Let’s plan for the session to take place at a wedding venue. I contacted Karyn Regitz of Drumore Estates in the gorgeous farmland of Pequea, Lancaster County who was so accommodating with letting us shoot on the beautiful grounds. Of course, the session wouldn’t be complete without a bouquet of flowers, so I reached out to Sandra Porterfield of Sandra L. Porterfield Wedding and Floral Design in Holtwood, who created an amazingly beautiful arrangement that I could not imagine to be more “Ellen” – bright and cheerful!. We even chose a morning session to signify that this life is just the beginning of a new day and not the end – everything was perfect!
The Sun rose on the horizon revealing a spectacularly clear and crisp morning. The fog settled in the valley and in the gardens at Drumore leaving a fall dew that stuck to the late-season flowers, reflecting all the light like a million little chandeliers. It was a photographer’s dream! I pulled up the drive that morning to meet with Ellen and there she was, standing there smiling in her beautiful dress that she made herself – amazing right!? We could not have asked for a better morning!
Everything was coming together so well. But leading up to the big shoot, something was still missing. Ellen’s story had changed me, and how I look at my life, how I treat others, and how I view my time spent in my temporary body. This story was too great for just me to know about. No, it had to be shared with as many people as possible. I contacted WGAL’s Anne Shannon to help spread her story a few weeks before the session began. She and her photographer, Will, arrived on that beautiful morning to capture and tell her story to what I hope is every single person who needs a little hope, to every person who’s had a “bad” day, or to anyone who needs just a little positivity in their lives.
The way Anne & Will gathered the entire story from every angle makes me know that this is going to be something that the whole world knows about. Ellen’s story is going to bring a lot of hope to so many people! Here’s the text & video story on WGAL’s website – click here! 🙂
To Miss Ellen Kurtz – you ARE an inspiration to me and to everyone who hears your story (which I hope is many many many people!). I’m so happy to have met you, and I truly believe that God led us to each other. I thank you for giving me a new outlook on life and reminding me that there’s wayyyyy more to life than anything material, it’s about living life, spreading joy, and giving hope to those around you. You’re amazing.