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Keeping the Faith


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Keeping the Faith

Centenarian Bernie Smith won’t let cancer win without a fight

Born in 1923, soft-spoken Bernie Smith’s lovely Southern drawl has lingered over the decades since he left his family’s farm in Virginia. And so, too, have the values he learned alongside his seven siblings, which still resonate with him today.

His hardworking parents taught them to keep an abiding faith and a positive attitude. “There was nothing negative spoken in our house regardless of what we encountered in life,” he remembers. “They wanted us to work hard and achieve the best we could, not only for ourselves but for each other and our neighbors.”

A lifetime of love

After high school, Bernie left home to serve three years in the medical corps during World War II. One fateful day upon his return, he dropped his aunt off at a town meeting, there he spied a childhood friend, Clara Hall. “I walked in and saw Clara,” he laughs. “She’d grown up. I told my buddy I was going to ask her out, and he said, ‘It will never happen,’” he laughs. Undaunted, Bernie called Clara. 

“She was busy and said to call back,” he remembers. “I said, ‘No, let’s set a date right now.’” Clara was charmed. They were married 18 months later.

Bernie went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting with a minor in biology from the University of Richmond. He remembers pounding the pavement looking for a job when a neighbor recruited him into the pharmaceutical industry. Along the way, Bernie joined Pfizer, the world’s premier biopharmaceutical company, which brought the family to the West Coast. Bernie spent the balance of his career at Pfizer, retiring after 40 years of service.

His 69-year love affair with Clara resulted in five children, 11 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Even though Clara passed away in 2016, her cherished memory lives on in Bernie’s heart and the tight-knit family the couple created together.

A fighting chance

At age 97, Bernie was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer, which had spread throughout his body. During one of his first appointments, his oncologist Dr. Timothy Byun asked Bernie if he wanted to fight or let nature take its course. Bernie didn’t hesitate. “If there’s a chance, I want to fight this.”

“The fact that Dr. Byun was willing to care for Bernie meant so much to our family,” says son-in-law Geoff Fearns. “Many would have seen the narrow chances a 97-year-old has and decide ‘we’re done.’ The odds were long, but they were not zero and it worked beautifully for Bernie.”

Dr. Byun and interventional radiologist Kurt Openshaw, M.D., recommended a new immuno-therapy drug tested in clinical trials conducted at Providence St. Joseph Hospital.

The therapy worked, and Bernie celebrated his 100th birthday this past February, nearly cancer-free. Even though his visits to the cancer center are not as frequent, Bernie looks forward to seeing the staff who gave him the ultimate gift — more time with his beloved family. 

Bernie is embracing every day and is grateful for the care he received at Providence St. Joseph. “I have been thoroughly impressed with my doctors, nurses and everyone at the cancer center,” he says. “I really can’t express how kind they are, and they’re very good at what they do.”

“Bernie is the most positive guy I know,” says Geoff. “One of the things he’s told me is that the only thing you can control is your attitude. This is a man who was literally at death’s door. He kept the faith. He’s genuinely an inspiration for our entire family.”

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