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A Zags fan's dying wish comes true

by MARK NELKE
Sports Editor | April 4, 2021 1:40 AM

Dr. Carey Chisholm, a retired emergency room physician and longtime Gonzaga fan now living in Bayview, is dying of cancer.

He said he doesn’t know how much time he has left to live, but admits, “it’s getting shorter.”

But he has a wish, and a goal.

He wants to make it until at least April 5, so he can see his beloved Zags win the national championship.

He mentioned this to Dr. Nicole Pelly, his outpatient palliative care physician at Kootenai Health, and she got the ball rolling.

A few texts and phone calls later, a couple of tickets were secured and his wish is coming true — Dr. Chisholm is back at the Final Four in Indianapolis this weekend, rooting on the Zags.

He and his wife, Robin, were at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday, watching Gonzaga beat UCLA in the semifinals. And they have tickets to Monday night’s national title game vs. Baylor.

“I just have a huge smile on my face,” Dr. Chisholm said via phone on Saturday, while en route to the arena to watch the two semifinal games.

Dr. Chisholm, now 66, practiced from 1980 until 2015 — since 1989, ironically, in Indianapolis — when he and his wife, Robin, retired to North Idaho, where she has family, and the Chisholms had vacationed off and on since 1990. He still teaches some classes at the Spokane campus of the University of Washington medical center.

In March 2018, Dr. Chisholm was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

“Of all cancers, it’s the last one I ever would have thought, because I’m a hard-core cyclist and runner,” he said.

As a doctor, he knew of palliative care, so several months later, he requested such a physician from Kootenai Health.

It turned out to be Pelly, who had interned under Chisholm at a hospital in Indianapolis in the late 1980s.

“I remember walking out into the lobby and saying ‘Dr. Chisholm, you don’t remember me, but I remember you,’” Pelly recalled.

Chisholm, his wife and two daughters, and Pelly developed a website about the dying process (cdconlivinganddying.com).

“We envisioned this as kind of an educational site for people who had terminal illnesses,” Dr. Chisholm said. “It’s still a taboo subject in America to talk about, so our hope was to share our journey, and also to provide some resources to help other people.”

“When you’re in palliative care we always talk about living your fullest life, and what brings you joy, and what your goals are,” said Pelly, who has been at Kootenai Health for four years after working for 15 years in the Seattle area. “Carey is at the end of his life. He made a comment to me (just before the NCAA tournament) that he wanted to stay alive long enough to see Gonzaga win the national championship. I was thinking about that comment.”

So Dr. Pelly called her friend, Dr. Renee Umbdenstock, an anesthesiologist at Kootenai Health, who had gone to Gonzaga Prep. Renee contacted her father, Rich, who has had Gonzaga season tickets since McCarthey Athletic Center opened in 2004.

“My dad said ‘Renee, I’m about 300th on the waiting list, and I don’t think this is going to happen, but I have heard rumors that, if they get to the Final Four, they’re going to do an event for the season-ticket holders at the McCarthey Center,’” Renee said.

Not even five minutes later, Rich got a text from the ticket guy he goes through at GU — “Do you want tickets to Indy? I’ve got ’em for you.”

They were first- and second-round tickets, and Rich couldn’t use them — and Dr. Chisholm was in Hawaii at the time, visiting his youngest daughter.

So Rich called his ticket guy and told him Dr. Chisholm’s story. The guy said he couldn’t promise anything, but he would see what he could do.

About a week later, before the regionals, the guy called back — if the Zags make the Final Four, we’ve got a couple tickets for you.

Meanwhile, Dr. Chisholm had no idea this was going on. Dr. Pelly kept Robin up to speed, just in case.

The day after the Chisholms got back from Hawaii, Dr. Pelly called them with the news — two more wins for the Zags, and you’re going to the Final Four.

“I have to tell you, it gave me such joy to hear him so happy,” Dr. Pelly said. “Because he’s a man who has done so much for so many people, that it was just an honor to be able to participate in making his dream come true.”

Dr. Chisholm, a Zags fan for some two decades who had never been able to score tickets to a home game at the always sold out McCarthey Athletic Center, was finally able to watch his favorite team in person.

“I wasn’t aware,” he said. “(Robin) and Dr. Pelly orchestrated this, and I’m still not sure how.”

Carey and Robin flew back to Indy on Thursday, and plan to return home on Wednesday.

“It’s really huge, and there’s symmetry,” said Dr. Chisholm, who has been tethered to an oxygen tank for the last month. “I’ve been to one other Final Four, in 1991 in Indianapolis. I was a big Duke fan, and they were my favorite team, and they won it all. And I have faith that the Zags, my favorite team, are going to win it all this time — 30 years later.”

“One of the things about a palliative care physician is, I can’t fix people,” Dr. Pelly said. “I can’t make their diseases better. They’re going to die, right? But what I can do is help them refocus on things that bring them joy. Because people who do things to bring them joy tend to live longer.

"So I knew if I helped Carey focus on getting to the tournament and all the joy this would bring him … I knew that it would help him live longer, and live better. And that’s what palliative care is.”

Being able to return to Indianapolis, to reconnect with friends and colleagues, has been therapeutic as well.

“I knew when he came back it would be a hard return from Hawaii to North Idaho,” Dr. Pelly said. “I worried he would be more down. If someone from Gonzaga knew it was literally his dying wish (to watch the Zags at the Final Four), maybe some magic would happen. Really grateful to the ticket coordinator at Gonzaga who heard the story and wanted to make sure his dream happened.”

“I’m just glad it worked out,” Renee said. “I thought it was such a longshot. I can’t think of a more deserving person than Dr. Pelly to be able to do something like this for her patient, because she really does go above and beyond for everybody. This is an example of things she does for her patients, and so the fact we were actually going to make it work is amazing.”

Dr. Chisholm has yet to meet either of the Umbdenstocks, to thank them in person.

If he did?

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he would say. It’s so special.

“This is truly a bucket-list thing.”

photo

Courtesy photo After watching from home as his Zags beat USC on Tuesday in the Elite 8, Dr. Carey Chisholm of Bayview, who has stage 4 lung cancer, knew he was headed to the Final Four in Indianapolis to watch is favorite team in person.