Walla Walla rallies behind mechanic in his battle with cancer

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With the autoimmune system firing better, Jim Andrews is happy to be back at his auto works business after a very close bout with death due to cancer.

WALLA WALLA -- The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a traditional time for Americans to count their blessings aloud and Jim Andrews may be among the clearest voices in this city.

It was just at a year ago that the community at large became aware of the cancer that was eating away at the Walla Walla man's life.

Andrews, 58, was diagnosed in May of 2010 with multiple myeloma, a cancer in the bone marrow. The illness had already been making Andrews, owner of The Auto Man car repair shop, sick with colds and stubborn infections.

Fatigue had become his constant companion.

The mechanic was known for his willingness to work hard and help people out with their car problems -- sometimes asking no compensation for his trouble. When he got sick, he held the secret close, telling not even his loyal customers.

By that December, the family's resources were thinning and the most expensive part of treatment -- a stem-cell transplant done in Seattle - would not begin until after the new year, when insurance deductibles would start over. The stay in Seattle would add housing and traveling dollars to the already-high cost of the illness.

To add some coal to the stocking, Jim's wife, Debora Andrews, had lost her job at the end of 2009 and she had been unable to find a new one.

There was no doubt the Andrewses needed to ask for help, despite being loathe to do so, Debora said in the 2010 Union-Bulletin article. "We've been very hesitant."

Amazing the change that can happen in a year, Jim said last week at his Isaacs Avenue business.

Initially the couple was told that the outcome of the diagnosis was bleak, he said, with a smile that bespoke nothing but delight.

Pulling down a chart he keeps pinned to the bulletin board above his desk, Andrews traced a tall spike on a flow chart. The steep peak represented his blood level of serum protein, an indicator of the cancer. The number next to the summit denotes "8.3."

He explained the significance of the notation. "At six, they stop treating. They said 'You're beyond help.'"

Chemotherapy temporarily lowered that number, but the undesired protein level began to rise as soon as the treatment stopped, he said, following smaller hills with his finger. "How bad off I was is beyond my comprehension. I was, literally, within weeks of dying. The blood I was making was worthless ... it wouldn't carry oxygen, it wouldn't carry nutrients."

While multiple myeloma is not considered curable, an autologous stem cell transplant -- done in Seattle -- could offer the relief of remission, Debora told the Union-Bulletin in 2010. The procedure would involve living away from home for several months and stepping away from running the business for the duration. "We are actually going to need to raise over $20,000 to cover all the costs..."

He hated the whole idea of asking for help, Jim said Monday. "It just devastated me that my wife put that in the paper."

Yet the deed brought forth an overwhelming community response. Not only did dollar donations pour into the special benefit account, but customers, local business leaders and complete strangers reached out to the Andrewses with gestures of support.

Walla Walla mayor Barbara Clark gave Jim words of encouragement about accepting the blessings of others, which helped him thaw from "frosted" over having his situation made public, he said.

Not that he's a stranger to challenging circumstances, Jim recalled. "I've been virtually homeless, I've been long-term destitute. None of that staff was hard for me, it was inconvenient. I scraped and got by. But putting coffee cans out and asking 'please donate' was way harder. Way harder."

Nonetheless, the mechanic was able to come to appreciate what Debora had done, he said. The newspaper story brought forth tremendous blessings from people, including one local car dealer who helped Jim get "hugely" better health insurance by changing his company's employee health plan to accommodate the situation. "And took on the additional expense," Jim said.

In January, the couple went to Seattle, where Jim underwent the stem-cell procedure. They stayed at the same motel for seven weeks, and the staff bent over backwards to make the time as comfortable as it could be. "Anything we needed," Debora noted. "They got us ice when the ice machine was broken. We asked them not to use cleaning chemicals and they didn't. That whole time they were wonderful. We encountered that attitude the whole time (of treatment)."

Even so, it was the hometown folks that carried the weight, including friends who called him every day, Jim said. "When you're over there by yourself, you wouldn't believe how welcome that is."

If anything could be more so, it would be the physician's note of this past September. "The previous noted gamma region monoclonal protein is no longer evident."

It's the third "all clear" finding for Andrews since the transplant. "My doctor said if he didn't know my history, he'd never know I had it. You're never cured, remission is the most you can hope for."

His medication regime is nothing but vitamins and getting vaccinated all over again for all the childhood diseases, Andrews said. "The procedure wipes all those out."

In the meantime, he's back to work at The Auto Man and grateful for every minute, he said. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone, but nothing but good came out of it."

While Andrews said he eschews the commercial aspects of this time of year, there will be gifts this time that went missing in 2010. "Last Christmas was a holiday season of desperation," he explained. "This year is a season of gratitude and optimism. None of those things were around last year."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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