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Home Away from Home | Pat Mjelde’s Altruism Story

  • Date Submitted: Oct 21, 2020

For 41 days in 2019, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Mjeldes stayed in the Sunshine Hospitality Home. Despite the reason they were there, the couple can’t say enough good things. For the past few years, Pat and Tom Mjelde had the perfect setup.

The 68- and 69-year-old couple would spend their summers in a breezy home on Buffalo Bay, just over the Canadian border in Manitoba. Then, they’d escape the snowy winters down in Mesa, Arizona. In between, the couple lived in a small home in the backyard of their youngest daughter in Lancaster, Minnesota, 12 miles down the road from their other daughter and close to all six of their grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Last August, Pat got a sinus infection that wouldn’t go away. She mostly ignored it because her older sister was dying from multiple myeloma. But when Pat’s vision got worse in one eye, her ophthalmologist scheduled her for cataract surgery. During the routine preoperative screenings, Altru providers noticed something worse.

“The day after my sister’s funeral, I went into Grand Forks to Altru Cancer Center and had a CAT scan,” Pat says. “They called me while we were on our way home. So we turned around and went back.”

Pat had Stage IV throat cancer, which had spread to the lymph nodes on her throat. She would need high-dose chemotherapy and radiation to treat it.

“The day we found out that I had cancer, my husband and I were both in such disbelief,” Pat says. “We had just buried my sister, who was my best friend the day before.”

A New Setting

Since the Mjeldes lived 80 miles away from Grand Forks, they knew daily commuting for radiation wasn’t an option. Then, they heard about the Sunshine Hospitality Home.

“We didn’t know anything about the Sunshine Hospitality Home at the time, Tom says. “It’s a tremendous facility. The location is close to the cancer center and hospital, and there’s a shuttle that will take you back and forth. One of the other important things was the security. You can’t find a better place.”

elder lady

For 41 days last fall and winter, the Mjeldes stayed in a suite at the Sunshine Hospitality Home while Pat had treatment. Each day, they went to Altru Cancer Center, and Tom cooked meals and washed clothes on-site. Pat slept in a lift recliner provided by the home because a normal bed didn’t work with the feeding tube inserted for her treatment.

“It was definitely a home away from home,” Tom says. The Sunshine Hospitality Home became even more of a second home during the holidays. Because Thanksgiving and Christmas were during the week, Pat still had to have radiation treatments on those days. So their kids and grandkids drove down and stayed in nearby hotels for the celebrations, and Sunshine Hospitality Home provided food for everyone.

“We had all the fixings for Thanksgiving,” Tom says. “For Christmas, we had prime rib, and it was fabulous.”

Meanwhile, the staff became part of Pat and Tom’s lives.

“The staff were absolutely phenomenal,” Pat adds. “They cared so much about every detail. They would have done anything to get us what we needed if we did not have it. I can’t speak highly enough of them.”

And Tom and Pat cared for the staff in return. Guest Associate Wendy Ackerman, who’s been working at Sunshine Hospitality Home since it opened, said Pat gave her important advice on the first night they met.

“I am not sure how the topic came up, but I was telling her about a heart procedure I was supposed to have had that day, but instead I made myself sick with worry and had to reschedule it,” Wendy says. “Pat told me her experience with the same procedure and reassured me that it would be OK. It took a huge weight off my shoulders. And it meant everything to me.”

“I was very concerned about her,” Pat says. “That’s part of caring about people. You reach out and show compassion and love to each other when you’re going through difficult times.”

Checking Out

Pat’s treatment—and her time in the Sunshine Hospitality Home—eventually came to an end. Although the Mjeldes admit treatment was challenging, they know it was worth it.

elder couple and a home behind

“Now, we can look to the future and hopefully have a few more years together,” Tom says. “The best words we heard came when Pat’s oncologist told her she was cancer-free. That made it all worthwhile.”

Two PET scans and several months later, Pat remains cancer-free. She and Tom celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this spring. And while their summer travel was postponed due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Mjeldes hope that another winter of snow won’t be in their future, thanks to Altru providers.

“That’s our prayer, for sure. It was tough to be here in the wintertime,” Pat says.

If you or someone you know might need the services of the Sunshine Hospitality Home, call 701.732.7900. If you’re interested in having a life-changing experience volunteering, please apply at altru.org/volunteer.