A Fighter to the End

Debbie Durham was known around the Moultrie community as a loving mother and wife. According to those who were lucky enough to be around her, she could “sing like an angel.” In fact, Debbie and David “Bull” Durham met almost 30 years ago when he was the minister of music for a local church and needed a piano player for an upcoming revival. She was Debbie Smith, 29, and he was 34. Bull Durham found more than a piano player that day, as the two married a year later. The Durham family practically doubled overnight, as Donna and Drew were Bull’s children from an earlier marriage, while Davis and Diana arrived from the marriage of Bull and Debbie.

Bull Durham is the owner of a successful insurance business in Moultrie. Debbie served as his bookkeeper from the day they married up until November 2018. That was when the pain of cancer plus the devastating side effects of treatment became too much to overcome.

Bull Durham recalled the first time Debbie mentioned anything about back pain.

“It was late 2013, and she was working at her desk, and she was complaining about pain in her upper back every time she tried to open a desk drawer,” he said. “Just the smallest thing made her back hurt.

Bull said they agreed that Debbie needed to see a doctor, but would wait until the Christmas season was over. At the start of 2014, Debbie saw a local doctor who ordered CAT scans and eventually referred her to a physician in Albany. Once there, doctors thought they had discovered the root cause of Debbie’s pain: a disc out of alignment in her neck. To fix the problem, Debbie was scheduled for neck surgery. Within days after undergoing the operation on her neck, Debbie and Bull Durham knew something was wrong.

“She knew pretty quick that the surgery had done nothing to alleviate her pain or fix the problem,” Bull said. “It had to be something else.”

The Durhams then turned to The Hughston Clinic, which had an office in Valdosta. They performed a bone scan and a CAT scan, but saw nothing. That’s when Bull’s instincts kicked in.

“I knew that they were overlooking something; I just knew it,” he said. “I asked the doctor for the disc. I wanted to review the disc in his office sitting right there with him.”

To the amazement of the doctors, and to Bull, there it was in plain sight: a bright, white, 8-centimeter, circular mass, sitting right behind Debbie’s shoulder blade. The doctor knew they had somehow missed the obvious, but admitted that Debbie did indeed have cancer. Specifically, the diagnosis was leiomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer that attacks muscle tissue in mostly women. It is an aggressive cancer, and doctors told Bull and Debbie that she may have five months to live. According to Bull, their faith was strong.

“We knew this was in God’s hands,” he said.

A treatment plan was devised that included 12 rounds of radiation to shrink the tumor. Then, surgery was scheduled at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, and in December of 2015, Debbie went through a grueling seven-hour surgery. To reach the tumor, surgeons were forced to saw through seven ribs. They placed a metal plate in Debbie’s back to help stabilize the loss of so much of her rib cage.

Following the surgery, Debbie returned home and went back to work alongside her husband. According to Bull, Debbie was doing well. She had been working most days, and her chemotherapy and radiation treatments were administered only on an as needed basis.

In August of 2018, her cancer returned. Debbie and Bull decided that she would have more chemotherapy, and she underwent the cancer fighting treatments for three consecutive days on Aug. 16-18. It became too much for Debbie’s body, and she developed complications. On Dec. 3, 2018, she passed away.

“It was probably as much of the chemotherapy that got my wife as much as the cancer,” Bull said.

But Debbie had outlived the doctors’ initial prognosis.

“They gave her five months, and she lived for six years,” Bull said.

While he misses his wife, he knows she is looking down on him, and he even hears her sometimes.

“She encourages me to keep going and to keep doing what I’m doing,” Bull said. “She reminds me that one day we’ll see each other again.”

Written by: Phil Jones
Photography by: Eric Vinson

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