A Wedding and a Funeral Within Two Weeks
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Ralph and Nicole Murczek
Retired nurse Debbie Flicker died on June 25, 2014—just 11 days after her youngest child Nicole married Ralph Murczek. The funeral was a heartbreaking blur; loved ones were simultaneously congratulating the newlyweds on their marriage and expressing condolences for their devastating loss.
Debbie wasn’t the only one in her family to pass away from pancreatic cancer; in addition to losing her mom, years before, Nicole lost her grandmother and her great-uncle to the same disease. Despite this family history, the diagnosis took the entire family by surprise.
During Labor Day weekend in 2013, Debbie, just 63, and several relatives, including engaged couple Nicole and Ralph, were gathered at the family’s vacation cabin in Pennsylvania. During this trip, Debbie’s other daughter, Amanda noticed Debbie looked yellow, and she was having issues with her bladder as well. Shortly after, Debbie went for a routine doctor’s appointment, and her bloodwork came back with some unusual findings, and her doctor was concerned because she was jaundiced. Nicole took Debbie to the hospital, where she underwent further testing and was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
When Debbie was diagnosed, the first thing she did was look at Nicole and say, steadfast and determined, “I promise I won’t die before your wedding,” and Nicole, terrified and grief-stricken, answered, “I don’t want you to ever die.” They looked out the window in the doctor’s office and cried together, trying to process how Debbie could have such a horrible disease, and wondering how this could be happening. With support from Amanda, a doctor, Debbie sought opinions from multiple leading cancer hospitals. One surgeon even attempted a Whipple surgery but couldn’t proceed with the procedure because the cancer had already metastasized to the liver. There were no available, appropriate clinical trials for her, so her doctors prescribed treatment with radiation and chemotherapy.
One day during Debbie’s treatment, Nicole feared the worst and knew Debbie was home alone. When she arrived at her parents’ home, the phone was off the hook, the coffee pot was overflowing, and Debbie was extremely ill. Nicole made it there just in time to call an ambulance. As if going through pancreatic cancer treatment wasn’t challenging enough, Debbie became septic. Miraculously, Debbie survived, and the chemotherapy she had been taking helped to bring her tumor marker numbers down. This was especially encouraging news after the sepsis setback.
Debbie resumed cancer treatment after she recovered from sepsis, and she and Nicole continued planning the wedding. It was truly an answer to Nicole’s prayers that Debbie was there to rejoice in this life milestone with her family. However, after the celebration, Debbie developed complications, resulting in her passing 11 days later.
“Losing my mom was such a difficult way to start a marriage, but Ralph was such a tremendous support—my rock—through everything,” Nicole said.
Nicole and her family also found solace in getting involved in fundraising for pancreatic cancer research. The family volunteered at the Lustgarten Foundation’s Lehigh Valley, PA Walk for Pancreatic Cancer Research and the following year, members from both sides of the family participated. From there, Nicole’s family learned more about the Foundation and wanted to get even more involved because of Lustgarten’s focus specifically on pancreatic cancer. “I absolutely love all the Foundation does, including having 100% of every donation fund pancreatic cancer research,” Nicole said.
Even though Ralph had only known Debbie for four years before she passed away, she had welcomed him wholeheartedly into the family. He described her as the family matriarch, who was funny, caring, welcoming, and just a joy to be around. She organized get-togethers every Friday night for the family, and they were always the highlight of the weekend. Ralph felt compelled to do something more to honor his late mother-in-law. He was an avid golfer and had participated in charity golf events, so with the family’s blessing, he started the Debbie Open golf tournament in 2015 in her memory.
At first, he and Nicole had no idea how to run a successful event, but slowly they approached local businesses to ask for fundraising support. “When we started, we had no supporting base and had to pound the pavement to get community support. Now we’re so grateful to the local businesses who sponsor us, including a graphic design company that donates their services, a photographer who takes photos for free, and a catering service that provides refreshments at cost,” Ralph added. “As you gain momentum, people will want to help.”
For the past two years, the Debbie Open has sold out, and all of the money raised through the event goes to the Lustgarten Foundation. The tournament, held Father’s Day weekend and limited to 120 golfers, is a celebration of hope and an opportunity for Debbie’s family and friends to gather and reminisce, all while raising money to help ensure others don’t suffer from pancreatic cancer as Debbie did. “What Ralph has done without complaining, year after year, is amazing. I’m so happy and grateful for all he’s accomplished,” Nicole shared. “My mom was truly the most incredible woman, and she deserves to be remembered like this!”
The family still shares so many stories about Debbie so the grandchildren will get to know their beloved late grandmother. “We found out on our one-year wedding anniversary that we were pregnant with our son Miles, and we tell him that Grammy was there to give him as a gift to us,” Nicole said. “We are repaying that gift by doing everything possible to carry out her legacy, which includes working with the Lustgarten Foundation and doing our part to help find a cure for pancreatic cancer.”