A local physician chronicles wife’s battle with leukemia
“Winnie” shares emotional journey in order to inspire others
November 25, 2016
When Dr. Robert Winn arrived in Park City in 1978, he and his partners ran the only medical clinic in town. They started in a small trailer but their practice quickly grew and over the next few decades Winn came to know almost every mom, dad and kid in town, having held their hands through medical emergencies, large and small.
By 1995, he was still practicing medicine in Park City, though in a larger, bricks-and-mortar clinic. There, Winn found himself taking care of children of children he had delivered and he joked, "I only learned first names so I could remember twice as many."
But that year the tables turned and Winn says the community began to take care of him. In May, Winn's wife, Nancy, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and the prognosis was bleak. The physician, who had often been charged with delivering difficult news to patients, was dumbstruck by the news that his healthy, active wife might not survive the week.
Unable to sleep in the predawn hours of Nancy's second night in the hospital, Winn turned to his laptop and wrote a brief letter to alert a small group of friends and family. It was, he says, the only way he could communicate without crying.
“As a doctor I wanted to be able to fix it, but everything I found about Nancy’s disease was not what I wanted to hear.”
Dr. Robert Winn
That note turned out to be the first of a two-year long series of heart-wrenching emails whose distribution list eventually grew to nearly 500 names.
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Now, those letters, 109 of them, are available as a hardcover book entitled, "Night Reflections – A True Story of Friendship, Love, Cancer and Survival," by Winn and co-author Timothy R. Pearson.
Unbeknownst to Winn and his family, during their ordeal a friend had carefully archived each email chronicling their valiant struggle against the disease's daunting odds — the remissions and recurrences, a risky bone marrow transplant and, most of all, Winn's deep love for his wife and their two children.
According to Winn, when Nancy was ultimately released from the hospital for the last time, he was so relieved to put that chapter of their lives behind them, he did not save the emails. But Polly Stern, the wife of Deer Valley founder Edgar Stern, did. She had a small batch bound as a gift that she handed over to Winn with the words, "At some point your loved ones will want to read this story. It's important."
Stern believed that Winn's detailed account offered valuable insights, not only for the Winns and other families undergoing similar experiences, but also for physicians.
"As a physician myself, I knew too much and I knew too little," Winn says in one of the letters. "As a doctor I wanted to be able to fix it, but everything I found about Nancy's disease was not what I wanted to hear."
He knew the odds that his wife would survive were slim, but learned to trust experts in the field who were tuned in to the latest research. And he learned from his two children, Jayna and Jaret, how much their love would help to pull their mom through the darkest hours. In retrospect, he says he also learned a lot about Park City.
"People are upset about how much Park City has grown, but it still functions as a small town," said Winn . "I want Park City to know how they nurtured me and my family. I didn't cook a meal or do my laundry for over two years."
Referring to himself as "an accidental author," Winn is somewhat nervous about the book's release, but the reaction from those who have read it so far, he said has been "exciting, humbling and overwhelming."
Dr. Winn will read from his new book at the Park City Library on Weds. Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. The event is hosted by Dolly's Bookstore and the Park City Library. Listen to Dr. Winn read one of his letters: