Less than 48 hours after learning he had glioblastoma (GBM), Bruce Stahlman and his wife, Kelly, got kicked out of the ICU for having too much fun. About a dozen friends descended upon the hospital prior to Bruce’s brain surgery with pizza and drinks.
Bruce stuck a piece of tape on the side of his skull with the racquetball-sized tumor and had Kelly write a zany, twisted note on it to his neurosurgeon. He was still cracking jokes when it was time for surgery and Kelly leaned over to kiss him goodbye. A nurse, disconcerted by all the laughter, fled a pre-op room.
They defy the notion that grave times demand solemnity.
Let’s circle the wagons, Bruce told Kelly upon receiving the diagnosis. It’s like we used to tell Mark and Eric: Live life to the fullest, until you don’t.
Mark and Eric were their twin boys born three months premature and with a severe form of cerebral palsy. Both were non-mobile, Mark was non-verbal, and Eric required a ventilator to breathe. Both needed around-the-clock care for the rest of their lives.
Both were buried in their early twenties, a few years before Bruce’s GBM diagnosis.
Their story of raising their twins is both beautiful and unflinching. Kelly cherishes Mark’s wholesome-looking senior photo, which she says belied a wicked sense of humor delivered via speech-generating device. Bruce reminisces on Eric’s love for the Colorado Rockies, and the high school sweetheart who accepted his marriage proposal three weeks before he died.
They also recall how their home resembled an ICU, replete with medical alarms, oxygen tanks and an in-ceiling lift system. They don’t sugarcoat memories of spinal fusion surgeries, invasive stomach procedures and acute suffering.
“Our kids went through horrible, painful things,” Kelly said. “Part of everyday was a living hell and part of everyday was heaven on earth.”
At times, they asked why us? But they decided to embrace the conviction that while we don’t get to choose what happens to us, we do get to choose how we respond. As Bruce and Kelly raised the twins, they found deep strength in expressing — and acting with — gratitude.
“First and always, it’s about gratitude,” Bruce said.
The mindset stuck. They were awed by how friends and strangers alike helped them. They realized all this adversity presented an opportunity to make a difference, in the disability community and beyond.
Bruce became a board member of The Arc of Arapahoe, one of nearly 700 nonprofit Arc Chapters nationwide that advocate for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Arc Thrift Stores fund the Colorado nonprofits, and amid a management shakeup, Bruce offered to assume the responsibilities of Chief Financial Officer of the chain and provide a steady hand on the financial aspects of the business. During the more than 15 years he’s served as CFO, arc Thrift has tripled its store locations, increased its nonprofit distributions and hired more employees — about 20% of whom have disabilities.
Bruce also got involved in local government, serving on Littleton’s City Council, Planning Commission and even as Mayor Pro Tem.
Kelly dove headfirst into healthcare and disability services advocacy, grateful for the public assistance that helped keep her family financially afloat. She also helped build support groups for parents of children with disabilities. This included the “Elephant Moms,” a term for particularly nurturing and protective parents, and fitting for this crew.
A blood clot killed Mark suddenly at 21. Eric died 18 months later, at 23, from sepsis. More than 600 people attended each memorial service.
Bruce and Kelly mourned, and still do. They promised each other they’d move forward. Jay, their eldest son, married just before Mark’s death and had a son shortly after Eric’s death. A second grandson was born a few years later — around the time Bruce started feeling dizzy and losing his balance.
Kelly called a neurologist who’d treated the twins and asked for a referral. He urged her to take Bruce to the emergency room. There, following scans, a physician approached to break the news. Kelly, fluent in doctors’ body language, said she already knew.
So began a new era of hospital visits. Surgery went well, at least from Bruce’s perspective. “Some consider leaving my personality intact a missed opportunity,” he joked.
For Bruce, living life to its fullest meant sticking to his daily routine. After recovering from surgery, he returned to work full time.
“It was budget season,” he said. “Plus, people in the office kept telling me how good I looked. That never happened before cancer.”
Bruce and Kelly have now immersed themselves in the GBM community. They’ve faced Bruce’s cancer with the relentless spirit and community first formed with Mark and Eric. They participate in a brain tumor support group, offering empathy and advice to recently diagnosed patients and families, and they seize every opportunity they can to raise awareness of the disease and treatment options.
Bruce resumed running and recently completed a 10K. Jay and his family moved to the Denver area just before the pandemic, bringing the family closer during an otherwise challenging time of isolation. Babysitting the grandkids, Kelly says, is a lot of work — and a whole lot of fun.
Throughout Bruce’s cancer treatment, friends they first met through Mark and Eric have been there for them. Like the night at the ICU, loved ones recently gathered and toasted Bruce for his 65th birthday.
“It’s difficult to express how much the collective support of people around our various communities has meant to me,” Bruce said. “I’m humbled and honored to be able to call so many extraordinary people my friends.”
Gratitude, Bruce says, is an awareness of what makes life meaningful. He thanks Mark and Eric for this awareness, and is determined to spend the rest of his life paying it forward.
He begins each day reading a book on miracles.
The health status of patients featured reflects their condition at the time the story was written and photographs were taken and may have changed over time.