Sometimes life takes frightening and unexpected turns.
On July 1, 2005, we experienced one of those turns. It began with a mid-day phone call from a member of our congregation. The call came from Dr. Mark Hassel. He asked if he and his wife Jennifer could meet with me because of a serious family crisis.
The urgency of Mark’s call alarmed me. I knew his medical practice was far too busy for him to take time off for anything but an emergency. I couldn’t imagine what had happened.
Was it one of their three beautiful children? A personal or marital difficulty? My mind anxiously raced through scenarios common to my work.
After encouraging them to come directly to my office, upon arrival, Dr. and Mrs. Hassel shared the shocking news that Mark was diagnosed with stage four stomach cancer that had spread to his liver. We embraced, wept and prayed as we tried to sort out this heartbreaking news.
From that day, until his passing on January 25, 2007, we engaged in an intense battle for Mark’s life.
Providentially, on the day of Mark’s diagnosis, I had begun a one month sabbatical for twenty years of service at our Church. This meant that all my regular responsibilities were distributed to my staff. It also allowed me to be free to hold tightly to the Hassel family at the beginning of a perplexing and difficult trial. Although I had known Mark and Jennifer as their pastor for about 10 years, through this trial, I came to know them more deeply. I cherished our many hours together as they became especially dear to me.
It would be an understatement to say that Mark suffered courageously. Each time he was asked how he was doing, he responded, “Pretty good shape for the shape I am in!” Actually, Mark always kept himself in amazing shape. He was a marathon swimmer and an avid bicycler.
I believe Mark was in such great physical condition that his body didn’t send him the kinds of messages normally associated with his diagnosis. Sure, he felt some fatigue and an occasional upset stomach, but he was under tremendous pressure with a growing practice, an active family, and a major construction project under his care. We were all completely shocked to learn of his condition.
Mark’s determination to fight his cancer was inspiring. More importantly, Mark’s unending concern for those around him, even in the midst of his own suffering, has left a great legacy. He endlessly looked for ways to cheer-up those around him. Mark’s wife, Jennifer, was also a great example of love and support for Mark. She faithfully fought with him in the battle for his life.
Since 1991, Mark had been building a successful medical career specializing in laser and skin cancer surgery. As a derma surgeon, Dr. Hassel was highly respected in the medical community. Mark was on staff at Lancaster General and Lancaster Regional Hospitals. He was also an assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
On April 15th, 2005, Mark and Jennifer reached a long anticipated accomplishment when they broke ground on a 15,000 ff2 surgery center. The center, which they had planned to call, Noll Drive Surgery Center was to be located on Noll Drive between Rohrerstown Road and Good Drive in East Hempfield Township, Lancaster. In view of Mark’s battle for his life, the Hassels made the difficult decision to sell the center.
On August 17th, 2005, WGAL did a story on Dr. Hassel’s battle with cancer. The story focused on a special web site designed to encourage those who are suffering (caringbridge.org). The site has been a source for many friends and family members to connect with and encourage the Hassels. On the site, Jennifer faithfully provided heartfelt journal entries of the challenges they faced during their difficult trial. Since the site began, it received approximately 115,000 visits.
In a special entry, Mark wrote the following,
“I am accustomed to being the one in charge of caring for others. It has been a growing and humbling experience for me to be on the receiving end from so many, so often. For me, this is perhaps the most difficult adjustment I have had to make. Just the same, it is an absolute delight to watch God work through His people. The love that you all have shown to me and my family is a great gift from God and I am so thankful for His gifts through all of you.”
“My whole life has been rearranged so dramatically that it is many times hard for me to fully comprehend what is happening. Some part of me is in denial, that everything will resolve and I will be back to work soon. That is my desire, yet it is not up to me to determine what will happen. I must rely on God and trust in His plan. I will use every means that God has entrusted me to try to obtain the goal I have set, which is to return to work fully recovered. At the same time, I am fully aware of the outcome statistics for my condition and the limited therapeutic options. Yet God is not limited by anything. If it be His will, I will be made well. If not, I accept his decision.”
“I am thankful that I have the ultimate hope in Jesus Christ. For Christ himself said, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Who do I believe in? I believe in the authority and power of Jesus Christ.”
Mark’s faith in Jesus Christ was strong and well-placed. It was not wishful thinking as some imagine but based on the irrefutable historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mark did not place faith in a religion or a philosophy but in a living and personal Savior who tasted death for him and opened the way for him to be right with God. Today, Mark is with his Savior in heaven.
What Mark is experiencing now is far better than anything in this world. But his departure (from our perspective) felt much too early. I cannot adequately explain the mystery of this, but I can honor his memory. One way is to do this is to keep looking at how I am living the days left to me.
Mark was an inspiring person. At the large memorial gathering for his life, I summarized the way Mark lived with 7 vignettes:
- Live Fully (Colossians 3:23)
- Laugh often (Proverbs 17:22)
- Love creation (Psalm 19:1)
- Serve others (Galatians 5:13)
- Suffer courageously (James 1:12)
- Be faithful (Matthew 25:23)
- Love God (Matthew 22:37-39)
Mark and I enjoyed many deep conversations. He use to say that it would be impossible for anyone with the knowledge required to be doctor to honestly reject a Creator who designed the human body.
Mark devoted his life to serving his patients to the glory of God. When it was his turn to be the patient, he took his place with a grace and dignity I will never forget.
Today I am remembering Mark, reflecting on my life and praying – especially for his dear family. I pray for Jennifer, Erin, Emily and Carson. I will always hold a special place in my heart for all of you. They say time heals but I continue to pray for you.
I pray for you to live the days God allows for you based on the 7 qualities I presented in Mark’s honor.
Please live with confident expectation that you will be reunited!
Cherish Mark’s memory. Be inspired by his life. Serve his Savior!
Find as much joy as you can in each day. I know without any doubt that he would want this for you!