Brian and Courtney Appel enjoy a moment at Mackinac Island in October 2019. Doctors diagnosed Brian with advanced Stage 4 colon cancer in 2016 at age 43. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
With Brian in failing health, Courtney sought work outside the family construction business. Their family friend, Spectrum Health Pennock surgeon Andrew Parsons, MD, told Courtney about a job in the hospital surgery center. “I knew in that moment that this is the place I needed to be,” she said. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
When his battle with cancer made full-time construction work impossible, Brian still found time and energy to build this table for friends. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Brian with his children, Ryan and Ebbie, in 2019 at Universal Studios Florida. (For Spectrum Health Beat)
Courtney Appel underwent profound change during her husband’s three-year battle with cancer.
And despite his tragic death—or maybe because of it—she found new purpose in providing care for others on a similar path.
“I don’t believe things happen without a reason,” Courtney said. “When you’re living in that realm of watching the person you love die—I did it for three years—you see the world through very different eyes.”
During that journey, she met plenty of helpers.
“The people who are compassionate, kind and show up, even when you don’t want them to,” she said. “I think that’s who I’ve learned to become. I don’t think I was that person before.”
The person before? A focused wife and mother of two. She worked alongside Brian in their family construction business, Brian Appel Builders, overseeing the books and assisting with customer service.
In 2016, Brian went to the emergency department after suffering injuries in a forklift accident.
During the evaluation, doctors found lesions on his liver.
Cancer had been the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Brian had no symptoms, no family history. He was young and physically strong.
“There was just nothing that would have ever led us to suspect that something wasn’t right with him,” Courtney said.
Nine months later, just before Halloween, Brian complained of an upset stomach and shoulder pain. An ultrasound revealed the lesions had grown into tumors.
He had advanced Stage 4 colon cancer and it had already spread to his liver.
Doctors delivered a grim prognosis. Even with treatment, Brian had only about two-and-a-half to three years to live.
“I’m a talkative person and I had no words,” Courtney said. “You don’t realize how fast life goes. Until it stops.”
Just a year into treatment, it became too difficult for Brian to work in construction.
Courtney had to start thinking about a job outside the family business.
She found herself drawn to health care, inspired largely by a patient services employee who had helped her and Brian shortly after his diagnosis.
“At a time that was so scary and so uncertain, she became a comfort to us,” Courtney said. “My heart was in the realm of health care.”
Courtney applied for the job.
During the interview, she explained how she’d be a great fit for the position.
“I knew in that moment that this is the place I needed to be,” she said.
She got the job.
Her first day: Jan. 8, 2018.
About the same time, Brian’s health took a turn for the worse. An infection settled into his heart, requiring a valve replacement.
In February 2018 he underwent a successful surgery at Spectrum Health Fred and Lena Meijer Heart Center.
And that summer, his cancer went into remission.
Courtney and her husband decided to sell their business and their hobby farm.
To simplify things, they moved in with Courtney’s mother and stepfather. It gave them an opportunity to enjoy the time they had left together, without any distractions.
“We were able to create some freedom in our life,” Courtney said.
She remembers telling Brian: “We can just go and live the life we want to live and just enjoy every moment we can.”
Courtney and Brian took a trip to Colorado to see Brian’s favorite band, the John Butler Trio, at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
In spring 2019, with their teens Ebbie and Ryan, the whole family took a traditional spring break trip to Universal Studios in Florida.
Brian’s health had been deteriorating and he became prone to blood infections.
But he made the trip.
He also made a trip that October to Mackinac Island, although it ended with friends helping him off the island.
Once home, they went directly to the emergency department.
He had neared the end of his fight.
Brian died Feb. 11, 2020, at age 46.
Prior to the cancer diagnosis, Brian had been very quiet.
Courtney remembers him as a physically and emotionally strong man—and a good listener. He had always been generous and he enjoyed giving back to his Middleville, Michigan, community.
“Post-cancer, Brian become a lover,” she said. “What he felt for people on the inside, he actually expressed. He wanted people to know what he thought of them and how he cared about them.”
For Courtney, the experience has made her more caring, too.
Especially for those with cancer.
“I think I’m much more empathetic and compassionate toward anybody in the cancer world,” she said.
She enjoys being a patient advocate.
“Sometimes it is just being quiet and allowing somebody to talk,” she said. “And to just show compassion and look for ways to help and be kind in a very scary time. That’s the thing I’m starting to bring to my job more.”
Her manager, Susan Huver, said Courtney’s caring attitude shines through as she interacts with patients.
“She is committed to making them feel comfortable knowing how anxious a visit to a specialty office can make a patient feel,” Huver said. “Courtney has been with us over two years now and that empathy and compassion is as strong now as it was when she started. She is very committed to making our patients feel comfortable right from the start.”
In her role at the surgery center at Pennock Hospital, she works with patients who arrive for colonoscopies.
She now has a role in helping prevent the same cancer that claimed Brian.
“I have a feeling there’s something more in my future with it and in time it will present itself,” she said. “You just have to look for what comes next, but I think I’m in the right place.”
She has become a huge cheerleader for screenings and she helps plan her department’s special events during colon cancer awareness month in March.
“A colonoscopy is the only screening tool that can be used to treat at the same time,” she said. “I’m a big proponent.”
Her family even put a plea in Brian’s obituary: “Brian’s wishes for those who remain are to love your community and to get your colonoscopy.”
They’re a few small words, but they are huge.
“It just seems silly to say, (but) if I can save one person it’s worth it,” Courtney said. “I’d like to save everybody.”’