In Search Of…’til death do us part

A local couple gets a special gift during their darkest hour

When you enter into marriage, you make certain promises: To love and honor, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. For Elvin and Kathy Smothers, those are promises they almost didn’t get to make.

Elvin and Kathy met back in 2009. Kathy worked in the automotive department at the local Walmart and Elvin needed a new set of tires.

Kathy recalls Elvin’s approach. “I like these tires here. Can I get a deal on them? And I’m like, ‘Sorry – the price is what the price is.'”

“So I came back a few days later,” says Elvin, “and asked her out for dinner. She said yes and we’ve been together ever since.”

Did he get the tires on sale? No. But he did get the girl and bonus, his teenage son Jamie liked her too. They even started talking marriage. But in 2011, Elvin noticed a white patch on his tongue.

“It used to be a spot that would come and go, so I thought nothing of it. ‘Oh it will go away.’ But then it didn’t go away.”


Elvin was diagnosed with a type of cancer usually found in tobacco users – Elvin isn’t one. “So luck of the draw, I guess.”

Doctors visits and treatments started right away and where Elvin went, so did Kathy.

Dr. Patrick Conway is an oncologist at Gundersen Health System and noticed their connection immediately. 

“He always came with Kathy. So it’s hard to mention one person without mentioning the other.”

After two surgeries, chemo and radiation, the prognosis looked good.

“He had a PET scan showing no evidence of cancer,” said Dr. Conway.

And to celebrate, Elvin thought of Kathy.

“He got down on one knee and he asked me to marry him and I said ‘Yes, absolutely I will marry you.”

But marriage would have to wait – because earlier this year the cancer came back with a vengeance.

“It was everywhere,” says Elvin. “In my spine, in my tail bone. My lung.”  And this time the cancer was too strong.  “They’re not going to get rid of it.”

Despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer and gearing up for a grueling round of immediate treatments, Elvin could only think of Kathy. “I told them, you guys gotta fix me up so I can get married at least.”

Dr. Conway vividly remembers, “So as I am talking about what I want to happen that day: change his radiation, add chemotherapy. Kathy spoke up and said, ‘What he wants to do today is get married.’ So that is not a usual request, to say the least.”

“Dr. Conway said he’d  look into it. But wouldn’t promise anything,” Kathy said.

Elvin’s chemo treatments were starting the very next day, time was of the essence. So Dr. Conway headed to hospital administration.

“I sheepishly walked in and the person I was hoping to talk to wasn’t there that day and so I was about to walk out, when Bryan Erdmann and said, ‘what can I help you with.'”

Erdmann is a Vice President at Gundersen. “He approached me and very reluctantly told me the story and I looked at him and said, if that’s what the patient wants, then lets get them married.”

Dr. Conway adds, “And basically, things happened from there. Quickly.”

While Kathy drove around getting all the paperwork and picking up her dress, things at the hospital were hopping.

“I had to talk to pastoral care, legal department, nursing staff,” said Erdmann. “They thought they were getting married in Elvin’s room, but we decided to have it in our courtyard. So our facilities folks got out leaf blowers.  We had people buying cakes, we had someone play the piano and sing. And so everyone kicked in. It wasn’t the traditional medical care, but it’s what needed to happen that day.”

Strangers and staff joined in with their family to take in their special ceremony. “From the widows up on all four sides you could see people watching.”

Dr. Conway says this is a day he and many of his co-workers will never forget. “His story, which is about the end of his life, for us gives us life at work. It is that deep of meaning for us. Thankfully I was the person that got asked to see Elvin. And that was one of the luckiest days of my career really.”

“Elvin why is it so important to get married?” This is the moment he stopped talking to the reporter, and started talking directly to her. “I love Kathy and she wanted to be with me. She’s just perfect. She takes care of me perfect. I couldn’t asked for anything better.”

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” At 37-years old, Elvin’s moments are running out. And they are all trying to come to grips with that. “Love you Jamie. Love you guy.”

I asked what the hardest part was for each of them. Kathy replied, “For me, knowing that one day he won’t be here next to me. That’s the toughest part for me. Right now it’s a cake walk. Yeah he’s going through all this terrible stuff but all I can do is be there for him and that’s easy.”

Choking back tears, Elvin adds, “knowing that I won’t be here forever. Because I want to be here forever. But nobody gets that.”

Yes, when you enter into marriage, you make certain promises. To love and honor, in sickness and in health. Promises Elvin and Kathy understand more than most.

“I am proud to introduce you to Mr. and Mrs. Smothers.”


About two weeks after this “In Search Of” story aired, Elvin Smothers passed away.

His wife Kathy tells us he went very peacefully on Monday, November 25, surrounded by family and friends and, of course, with Kathy right by his side.