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Portraits of a mom

Before she died at 32, Kristen Hayostek said no to abortion and no to cancer treatments so she could have a 7th child

Sunday, December 15, 2002

By Brian O'Neill, Post-Gazette Columnist

Ask any mother if she would give her life for her child. Most would answer "yes" without hesitation. Most never have to make that choice.

Photos of the Hayostek family, taken last June, six days before Kristen's death at 32 from cancer: Clockwise from the top center are Kristen with Jerry; with daughter Madison, now 10; daughter Kennedy, 5; son Quincy, 14 months; son Carter, 3; daughter Monroe, 4; Mckinley, 7; and Taylor, 13. All but the center photograph were taken by Cynthia Zordich. The center photo of Jerry and Kristen was taken in October 2000 by an unidentified photographer. Click picture to see a larger image.

Kristen Hayostek was two months pregnant with her seventh child when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

The oncologist advised an abortion. Kristen and her husband, Jerry, never considered that an option. So the doctor suggested inducing an early birth, followed by a radical hysterectomy.

She would not hear of that, either. Kristen had nursed her first six children. She would nurse this child, too.

Her husband was sharing this the other night in the dining room of their seven-bedroom house on the North Side, where Kristen's portrait hangs above the mantel. Their 3-year-old son, Carter, ran up for a hug. His dad put his arms around his boy and kept talking.

"We went through two weeks of 'Why us?' Kristen cried almost every day of those two weeks."

She also prayed. The Hayosteks are devout Christians. She was led to a passage in the Book of Daniel in which Daniel refused to defile himself with the royal food and wine he was offered, opting for vegetables and water instead. Daniel thrived.

Shortly after reading this passage, Kristen made an Internet search for cancer treatment alternatives. Up popped the Web page for Hallelujah Acres, which espouses a biblically inspired diet of vegetables and fruit. The testimonials from others facing life-threatening diseases gave her hope.

Her children would never have to see her sick and miserable from chemotherapy, with no guarantee of survival. Here was an opportunity for her body to heal itself.

Her oncologist and gynecologist were not encouraging, but her symptoms stopped within two weeks of her renouncing meat, sugar and caffeine. Her diet of vegetables and fruit resulted in her first pregnancy without back pain.

In the meantime, Jerry, who also embraced the diet, dropped 30 pounds and his allergies disappeared. Still, they didn't find it easy to persuade others that they were on to something.

"Talking about diet is almost as bad, if not harder, than talking to people about God," Jerry said.

It was not unusual for Jerry and Kristen to find themselves out of the mainstream.

They met in 1993 at a church singles group in Moon when both were in their mid-20s. Each had turned to evangelical Christianity late in their teens. When they began dating, they decided to postpone sex until marriage. Kristen had become a Christian after giving birth to a child out of wedlock, but did not become serious about her faith until after her second daughter was born. Neither child had ever had a father in their lives. Jerry would be the first whom they called "Dad."

The family grew swiftly after their marriage in July 1994. Mckinley, now 7; Kennedy, 5; Monroe, 4; Carter, 3; and Quincy, 1, joined their older sisters, Taylor, 13, and Madison, 10.

When the family would go out together, people would say, "Are these all yours? God bless you."

"I'd say, 'He already has,' " Jerry said.

By the time Kristen became pregnant with their seventh child, Jerry was working 50 to 60 hours a week. His job as a shop manager with an industrial plastics company in Georgetown, Beaver County, had grown as his family had, but, a couple of months before Quincy was born, he took a job in custom steel fabrication in Burgettstown. The new work was much more demanding.

Then there was the house. On the last day of 2000, the family moved from Burgettstown to a three-story brick house on the North Side. They'd found it one Sunday afternoon after attending services at the Allegheny Center Alliance Church.

Jerry tells that story in a way that might remind a listener of the final scene of "Miracle on 34th Street." He had a long list of things he wanted in a house -- it had to be big, brick, with lots of character and with a price tag under $50,000, a seemingly impossible package. But with all six children asleep in the family van, a miraculous moment for any parent, he saw the "For Sale" sign on a side street while driving up Brighton Road.

He managed to get this seven-bedroom house and its big front porch for $37,000. But it had long ago been divided into three low-rent apartments, so he had to gut the entire 3,500-square-foot space.

It took seven months of work, after his paying job, to make it habitable. The Hayosteks sold their house in Burgettstown and rented a relative's house in New Brighton while Jerry commuted among work, their home and their future home. He would take a voluntary layoff just to finish.

When the Hayosteks moved in, there was only the nucleus of a kitchen, one drywalled bathroom on the second floor and two drywalled bedrooms. The six children took one. Jerry and Kristen took the other. Within a month, she found out she was pregnant with a seventh child. The diagnosis of cancer came two months later.

"She carried Quincy full term, which drove the doctors nuts," he said.

Quincy, a healthy boy, was delivered 14 months ago by Cesarean section. There was no sign that the cancer was spreading. The doctors pressed for a hysterectomy, but Kristen wanted to nurse Quincy as long as she could, and she also wanted the chance for an eighth child.

Perhaps if they had been able to find an oncologist or gynecologist more open to Kristen's beliefs, Jerry said, she might have been open to a greater degree of traditional treatments. But they never found that middle ground. Her diet "was part of who she was, but they didn't want to hear it."

"The only choices were radical hysterectomy, radical chemotherapy or radiation, and that was it.

"She decided to stick with the healthiest treatment she could find, which is nutrition. She had a high degree of hope that it would do the job."

She did not have any post-partum depression, as she'd experienced before. Four months after Quincy was born, a follow-up examination of her cervix showed the cancer hadn't grown . The Hayosteks took this as a sign that her diet was at least holding the cancer in check.

Then, in April, as Jerry and Kristen were moving some furniture, she felt as if she had pulled a muscle in her left buttock. After weeks of intensifying and chronic pain, tests showed that the cervical cancer had metastasized to her liver, lungs, left kidney and throughout her pelvis.

The doctors agreed traditional medicine would not be likely to help now. Chemotherapy's side effects would only rob her of any remaining quality of life. She was given six to nine months to live.

A week later, Kristen's legs began swelling. She went back to the hospital for more tests. They showed the cancer growing faster than expected. Doctors told her she had three months more of life, at most.

Jerry, along with Kristen's father, Dave Leipchack, wanted her to consider chemotherapy.

"But as we all prayed and slept on the idea, both Dave and I released Kristen to be obedient to what she believed God was leading her to do. Kristen said she felt like a noose had been removed from her neck and she was free and happy to be obedient to God.

"Some people might think that's a little superspiritual and fatalistic, but that's how she felt."

She had no regrets. She told anyone who asked that she would make the same choices again. She continued to home-school her three oldest children until a couple of weeks before the end.

Six days before she died, friends arranged for a professional photographer to come to the Hayosteks' home. This part of the story is the most difficult for Jerry to share. During a recent telling, he slipped to his knees in the living room and it seemed only partly because 3-year-old Carter had taken over his chair.

"In three hours, she did all the kids' hair," he said, his voice wavering. "It took her a long time because she was really weak."

But she sat through two hours of photos, two hours of smiles and hugs and nuzzling.

"The best possible gift anyone could have given us," Jerry said.

Various friends then took in the children so Jerry and Kristen could spend her final days together at her father's home in Hopewell. Her decline was rapid and frightening. Kristen M. Hayostek died at 5:50 a.m. June 12. She was 32. Her father; stepmother, Teresa; and sister, Kelly, were at her bedside. Jerry held her.

"I was up with her all night, so she died in my arms. As heartbreaking as it was, there was relief that it was finally over."

The photos were displayed at her funeral. Her wake was at the Fez Banquet and Wedding Center in Hopewell, where Jerry and Kristen had their wedding reception less than eight years before.

"God had never said he would heal the cancer through her diet," Jerry wrote in her legacy Web site a month later. "He only told her to change her diet. As I look back, the change in diet gave her a quality of life and time that she would not otherwise have had, to give Quincy the best and healthiest chance at beginning life in this world."

In the six months since, Jerry has held things together with the support of family and friends, particularly fellow members of Alliance Church. The day before Kristen died, 25 people packed up the entire house, moving everything to the third floor and the basement so workers could drywall the first two floors -- for free. When the drywallers were finished, 30 people swarmed in to sand and paint. Jerry returned from four weeks with Kristen's parents to find four finished bedrooms and the painted house he'd always wanted to give her.

Friends have set up the Hayostek Family Fund at National City Bank for the children. It currently pays tuition for the four oldest children at Rhema Christian School in Moon. The trust also is temporarily paying for child care. Debbie Sapos, who has known Jerry since he was a boy, drives in from Brentwood five or six days a week to watch the little ones, keep house and prepare meals. Other folks bring meals three days a week.

Jerry's old career, which once took him to such places as South Korea, ended when Kristen died. He will no longer work a job where he is away from his family for 50 to 60 hours a week. He has been working 25 hours a week delivering pizza Downtown for spending money and also to qualify for state assistance that will pay for health insurance and child care. The job has been humbling.

"I stand in some elevators and see these guys in suits. I wonder if these guys are looking at me and thinking, 'What's his problem?' "

He plans to become a junior partner in a friend's home remodeling business early next year.

"I'm trying to figure out who I am now."

The other night, he put in a video for a visitor, one he'd made during his wife's final stay in the hospital. The children gathered around, eager to see Mom again.

Kristen is lying in bed, sipping water through a straw, talking with a nurse who had prayed with her. Jerry asks why she spurned the chemotherapy, knowing the answer he'd get, but wanting to let her tell her children so they can understand, if not today, then someday.

"I can't see making myself sick," she says.

Soon, she is telling Jerry, and, through the television set, her children: "I think we had more flowers here than when we were married."

Jerry understands that many would not have made the choices his wife made, would not have resisted traditional medicine even after the birth of Quincy, but he says nobody has a crystal ball.

"I can't condemn her for it," he said. "At least now her children have more positive memories of her being lively and full of energy, instead of years of misery and sickness."


Brian O'Neill can be reached at (412) 263-1947 or boneill@post-gazette.com.

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