Fighting for life on all fronts
“I told her that it was OK if she wanted to leave me, that I would understand,” remembers Jon Efraimson, a 14-year Vail Valley resident, better known to his friends and family as “Eef.”
But Lisa Efraimson, 37, who had asked for a weekend to think when Jon proposed marriage to her two years ago, didn’t even pause this time.
“I said “no,’ just “no,'” says the soft-spoken sales representative, whose radiant smile shines despite the tragic experiences and events she and Jon have lived through since their wedding at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater June 22.
For some time after they returned from their honeymoon in Hawaii, the newlyweds, expecting their first child this fall and looking forward to settling as a family, wondered out loud if they attracted misfortune in their young marriage.
“The day we got back from the honeymoon, Lisa’s water broke,” remembers Jon Efraimson, his voice choking just a bit as he looks down at his hands in the kitchen of the couple’s cozy home in Eagle-Vail.
Despite strict bed rest and a swift transport to Denver’s St. Luke’s hospital by helicopter, Owen Daniel Efraimson, was born prematurely – at 24 weeks he was beyond modern medicine’s reach.
“He was just too young, too small, too weak,” says Jon, before reciting his son’s measurements as if reading from a birth announcement.
“1.6 ounces and 18 inches.”
For the few hours of his life, Owen was with his parents. They held him and kissed him and said “goodbye” to him.
“It was hard. He looked so perfect on the outside,” says Lisa, her smile tempered just a bit by sadness. “It was happy and sad to be there with him, but he is in a better place now.”
The young couple had barely begun facing the loss of their son when Jon noticed a strange noise rising from his lungs.
“There was a pull-out in Lisa’s room at the hospital, but I spent most of the night on the floor because it was more comfortable,” Jon says.
“Then I noticed this gargling in my lungs.”
Less than two weeks after holding a memorial service for their son, the Efraimsons faced yet another devastating change of reality since they had promised to stay together, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.
At 36, Jon Efraimson, who had never smoked a day in his life, was diagnosed with advanced adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer, and given almost no chance of survival by his doctors.
“Emotionally, we were just in shock,” the wife remembers of the time when her husband offered to let her leave their marriage.
They both remember crying with family, making tentative jokes under the glare of fluorescent lights in hospital waiting rooms and just plain refusing to take a doctors’ words as the last on Jon’s chance of living.
“Now I’m glad she didn’t take me up on it,” he says of his offer to his wife to annul their vows.
Drawing strength from their bond, he swiftly switched gears, hit the throttle and began charting a “fight I’m comfortable fighting.” He began researching his disease on the Internet and reading books on treatment options. He changed doctors and adjusted his schedule to make room for new priorities.
He goes to Denver one day every week for intravenous chemotherapy, as well as to be part of an experimental study group testing a new cancer cell-growth-inhibitor drug.
In addition to traditional medicine, Jon Efraimson has chosen to pursue a variety of alternative therapy options – from acupuncture to yoga to a low-fat, low-sugar diet to dietary supplements – striving to “empower myself to treat this disease the way I want to deal with it.”
The diagnosis, and the challenges it presents, has changed almost every aspect of Jon Efraimson’s life. The hard-charging, self-described “workaholic” now spends more time conjuring up travel plans for himself and his wife, or cherishing good company and a tight network of friends and family, than working as part-owner of EEF Productions, a video production company he has operated since 1996.
“I still need to work and I still want to work,” he says. “But it’s not that important anymore. Work used to be among the top three priorities in my life. Now it’s somewhere in the top 10.”
He can’t remember the last burger he ate, and hasn’t missed it, he says. Nixing deserts, however, has been tough.
“But I like carrot sticks now, because beta-carotene promotes healthy lung function.”
Building a foundation
Despite repeated comments from friends and family about their tough fate, Jon and Lisa Efraimson say in unison they are happy where they are now – together and determined to build a bright future on a foundation tested for cracks much earlier than most marriages.
“We are happy about who we are and where we are,” says the cancer patient, whose chemo-induced baldness is the only clue to the unknowing observer of the up-hill fight he has only begun battling.
A stocky man, who seeks eye-contact and chooses his words with careful intensity, he “has definitely opened up and is more comfortable sharing his feelings” since the diagnosis, says his wife.
His sense of humor, though, remains as strong as his belief he can fight and win this battle.
In a recent e-mail to friends and family, he jokes about his baldness, despite the fact that loosing his hair wasn’t easy.
“I now resemble Mr. Clean, or Sinead O’Connor, even Michael Jordan,” he writes in one of his semi-regular dispatches meant to keep friends and family in the loop on his and his wife’s well-being. The same e-mail also implores loved ones not to feel sorry for the young couple.
“Lisa and I celebrated our four-month wedding anniversary and still laugh, smile and love each other every day, even though we continue to be challenged in our young marriage,” Jon Efraimson writes, reminding each of the recipients to “love your family, live with your heart and live each day to the fullest.”
“Relief for Eef’ Saturday
A fund-raiser for Jon Efraimson has been organized by his friends and sponsored by the Vail Valley Charitable Fund.
The event, scheduled for Saturday from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. at the Kaltenberg Castle restaurant in Lionshead, will include a live and silent auction, as well as live entertainment by the Harry Baxter Bank.
A donation of $20 per person at the door includes free beer and hors d’oeuvres.
In addition to covering the mounting bills related to his treatment, Efraimson says he plans to donate part of the money to the Lance Armstrong Foundation and possibly use some of the proceeds to start a cancer support organization in the Vail Valley.
To make a direct donation, send a check to the Vail Valley Charitable Fund, P.O. Box 3851, Eagle, CO, 81631. Make sure to write “Relief for Eef” in the memo field.
Donations are tax-deductible; a receipt will be mailed to anyone who sends a check.
For more information, call 328-3863.
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.