Former Ramsey council member wins his toughest campaign

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 11:21 PM

David Jeffrey was stunned by cancer, but he was absolutely knocked out by the thousands who responded to his illness.

Former Ramsey council member and current vice president at Anoka Technical College David Jeffrey

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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As they began their ride home to Ramsey, David and Jackie Jeffrey were still in shock. For 15 minutes, they exchanged nary a word.

"I'm not sure what to say," the Ramsey City Council member told his wife.

He knew he was taking on the toughest campaign of his life and responded the only way he knew how.

"I'm in it to win it," he told her.

This time, Jeffrey's opponent was pancreatic cancer, and his chances of survival, doctors told him, were no better than one in three.

"What do we tell our kids?" he said to Jackie. "What do we tell our friends?"

Turns out, David and Jackie weren't the only ones in it to win it. Their kids -- David, 26, Michelle, 23, and Amy, 14 -- responded by wearing "Team Jeffrey" shirts to the hospital, and distributing another three dozen. But that wasn't enough. More than 13,000 friends offered support to Jeffrey on-line.

When he emerged from his last chemotherapy session a few weeks ago cancer-free, Jeffrey and his family organized a dinner at which they thanked dozens of folks who represented the thousands who offered support and prayers.

"All the support we had," Jeffrey began. "To me, that's the real miracle of all this."

Fighting through it

He hadn't felt well for years after falling into a vertical culvert in 1997 and the repeated back surgeries that resulted. But this cancer thing was uncharted territory for the Jeffrey family.

Thirteen months ago, Jeffrey, 47, said he was struggling to keep down food. He was fatigued, but figured he "could fight through it."

During the holidays last year, he kept telling himself, "If it's bad next week, I'll go in for a checkup." Usually, he just put things off.

A vice president at Anoka Technical College, Jeffrey was in his office in April when he became so sick that he doubled over on the floor. He called for a ride home -- and was taken directly to urgent care. Doctors told him he was dehydrated.

When he and Jackie later went to the University of Minnesota Hospital for a thorough exam, he was told a different story -- that he had a tumor.

"You're kidding," Jeffrey said.

"No," a doctor replied, "we don't kid about things like this."

Jeffrey looked at his wife.

"How do we tell our kids?" he said.

Just the facts

When they arrived home, they told their three children, pulling no punches.

"I didn't know what to think," said their son, Dave. "But I told my dad, 'When you go to the surgeon, I'm going with you. And I don't want any of this, "Oh, we'll be fine" stuff. I want the facts.' "

Not even his younger daughter, Amy, wanted anything sugarcoated.

"I was home all the time and I heard everything they talked about," she said. "I heard everything that was going on, whether I wanted to or not."

Although his surgery went well, Jeffrey came to the conclusion that he'd have to withdraw from public life. He resigned from the Ramsey City Council after 6 1/2 years of service, prompting a special election in which Sarah Strommen, a former council member, won his vacated seat.

He took a leave of absence from Anoka Technical College, where son Dave is a student.

And he braced himself for more than a dozen chemotherapy treatments -- and the nausea and other side effects that came with them.

A true friend

When he was feeling his lowest, he'd receive calls from Ramsey Councilman Randy Backous, whose wife had experienced cancer.

"What are you doing? Get out of bed," Backous would demand, and then show up to visit, regardless of the time of day.

"If I was having a bad day, Randy would bring his laptop over and get his work done while keeping me company," Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey tried to stay positive. His friends, family and colleagues at the college left him little choice.

"I really learned to appreciate the little things," Jeffrey said. "Every day is a gift. Purpose finds me.

"I'm still running at 100 miles per hour, but priorities change," he said.

Might run again for office

Barring the unforeseen, Jeffrey needs only periodic checkups. He recently returned to work, and wants to do more volunteering.

"I loved serving my community," said Jeffrey, who grew up in Albert Lea and worked for a while in Texas and Louisiana. "Ramsey is home. If things were right, I could see getting back into public life one day."

The reaction to his illness has reinforced his desire to reach out.

"We have so many people to thank," Jackie said. "The outpouring of support has been overwhelming."

Students stop by his office to say hello and offer congratulations. The phone calls, positive e-mail and Internet greetings keep coming.

Jeffrey shakes his head and counts his blessings.

"I don't want to be a poster child," he said. "I just want to be an everyday person.

"You never dream about getting cancer," he said. "And you never imagine a support group like this."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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