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Day by day: Married 65 years, Fulda couple endures

Beth Rickers/Daily globe Dorothy and Rich Gilbertson are shown in the living room of their Fulda home. Since a battle with cancer 12 years ago, Dorothy has lived without a pancreas.1 / 2
Beth Rickers/Daily globe Rich Gilbertson turns golf club woods into waterfowl figurines, lined up on shelves in their home. 2 / 2

ULDA — On one of many recent blustery winter days, Rich and Dorothy Gilbertson are contentedly tucked into their cozy house on Fulda’s north side. Married 65 years, the couple, ages 92 and 86 respectively, feel blessed to be able to still live in their own home and be together, despite some health-related setbacks.

Most notably, Dorothy has lived the last 12 years of her life without a pancreas — the bodily organ that secretes insulin, which controls blood sugar levels, as well as digestive enzymes and hormones.

“When I say I don’t have a pancreas, people just look at me kind of funny,” related Dorothy. “Most people aren’t aware of what a pancreas does.”

While it’s pretty rare for people to have the entire organ removed, it is necessary in some cases, such as Dorothy’s, because of pancreatic cancer.

“I had a lot of indigestion problems and could never figure out exactly what was causing it,” she recalled. “Then I started getting stomachaches and pain going into my back.”

At the time, a gastroenterologist was seeing patients at the clinic in Worthington, so Dorothy made an appointment and had a CAT scan. When the doctor returned the following week, he told her there was a large mass in her pancreas. He gave her the option of seeking treatment in Sioux Falls, S.D., or the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and she opted for Mayo. She had surgery to remove the affected part of her pancreas in 2000.

“That first surgery, they just took the tail of the pancreas and said I didn’t need any treatment because it hadn’t spread,” she said. “I was fine for a while, but then I started having the same symptoms again, so they did another scan.”

The scan confirmed that the cancer had returned, and another surgery was scheduled in 2001.

“Chemo and radiation do not do much for pancreatic cancer,” Dorothy said. “So I had a second surgery, and this time they took the whole thing. But it hadn’t spread outside the pancreas. I ended up with a couple of infections, though, so I was in the hospital for 29 days.”

Without a pancreas, Dorothy immediately became a diabetic, and she gives herself insulin shots three times a day in order to control her blood sugars, and she must also watch her diet.

“I have a hard time digesting,” she explained. “I can eat some stuff one time and it doesn’t bother me, and the next time it does. The dietitian told me that where you get in trouble is with your fats.

“With each meal, I have to take enzyme pills,” she continued. “The doctor can’t even tell you how many to take, because they don’t know. You have to take a few more when you eat something that you probably shouldn’t.”

In the grand scheme of things, however, Dorothy looks at the medications she must take daily and the occasional trip to the emergency room when her body doesn’t function correctly as inconveniences.

“First of all I thank God,” she said, “and I had a wonderful surgeon, Dr. Thompson is his name. When I’d go back for a checkup, he’d just smile from ear to ear, knowing what he’d done for me.”

The surgery gave Dorothy more time with her husband, daughter Suzanne, two grandsons and a chance to meet her two great-granddaughters. She’s also grateful for the love and care she’s received from her family members, who have been by her side throughout every ordeal.

“It’s a struggle,” she admitted, “but I’m just so thankful. I would never have seen my great-granddaughters, because they were both born after I was diagnosed.”

Although they used to spend winters in Arizona, these days the Gilbertsons don’t stray too far from home. They have lived in Fulda all their lives. Rich, a World War II veteran, owned and operated the Skelly service station in Fulda for many years, then served as a state fire marshal for another 10 before retiring. Dorothy did the bookwork for the station.

“I’m kind of a homebody, and it’s a good thing I am,” said Dorothy. “We lead a pretty quiet life. Rich is also diabetic, and we fare much better at home where we eat our regular meals.”

Dorothy enjoys cooking and baking and also does a lot of reading and puts together puzzles.

“I’m on the library board, too, and I help out with the church service out at the nursing home on Tuesday,” Dorothy added.

Rich can often be found puttering in his workshop. Over the years, he’s turned out hundreds of waterfowl figures, fashioned from golf club woods with a hand-carved head attached. His output has been slowed down, however, by lessened mobility in his hands.

“I just looked at them one time and thought, ‘That’s easy enough,’” said Rich about how he decided to try his hand at the craft. “But it’s not that easy, because you have to cut the handle off. But I’ve made hundreds of them. I’ve got just about every kind of duck there is and geese and pelicans.”

The handcrafted birds line the shelves of their living room, but there’s also a plethora of birds found just outside the Gilbertsons’ picture window, too. They are avid bird feeders, providing a daily diet of suet for the winged creatures that don’t go south for the winter.

While they sit and watch the birds feast outside that window, Rich and Dorothy count their many blessings.

“I think it has made me a better person,” Dorothy said about her health struggles. “I think I’m more tolerant than I was, and I’m much stronger than I used to be because of it.”

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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