Conservation after cancer

U alum Kevin Lines survived cancer and is now working to help the state’s pheasants.

by Allison Kronberg

University of Minnesota alumnus Kevin Lines made the decision to work in conservation during a seventh grade field trip to help declining deer populations in his hometown of Milaca, Minn.

But hunting made him care about the animals in the first place — Lines hunted with his father when he was young, and he now hunts with his own son.

“It’s kind of in our blood,” Lines said.

Something else in Lines’ blood, though, took him away from his passion and the career he loved before he was ready to leave it.

Lines, 60, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymphatic system, in September 2011. After nearly 40 years of working in conservation, he was forced to retire early to start chemotherapy.

Now cancer-free, Lines returned to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in February to  oversee a four-year plan to increase Minnesota’s pheasant population, which crashed in the late 1960s because of bad winters and land-use changes that led to habitat destruction.

“Kevin would always say, ‘Ed, my heart’s in wildlife, and I’m always coming back to wildlife,’” said Line’s former supervisor at the DNR and friend of 25 years, Ed Boggess.

Staying positive

Just weeks before his diagnosis, Lines’ daughter Kelly Johnson’s newborn baby had died in hospice care because of an unforeseen fatal brain injury.

Losing the baby, named Britta Grace Johnson, was the hardest thing the family had ever faced, Lines said.

“Family is just — you don’t realize how important it is until times get tough,” Johnson, 30, said.

Lines’ wife, Mindy Lines, was overwhelmed.

“I really had to take a deep breath, and it was a time for reflection,” she said. “It was like, ‘Really? Really? Really?’ … And it was like, ‘Yep. This really is what’s happening.’”

Because of the loss of the child, the Lineses chose not to tell their children about the diagnosis until the cancer turned aggressive about a year later. At that point, Kevin Lines’ family urged him to leave his job at the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

It wasn’t easy to leave the job, Lines said. He could count the number of bad days he had at work on one hand.

“He definitely was not a guy that wanted to quit,” Boggess said, “but he recognized he needed to concentrate on his health.”

So Lines left work and came to the University Medical School to start treatment.

But before doing so, he had one request for his oncologist to consider while planning the schedule of his chemotherapy.

“I said [to my doctor], ‘I’m going elk hunting in October unless I’m dead before then,’” Lines said. “[My doctor] looked at Mindy and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’”

Lines had been planning the hunting trip with his son all year, and he wasn’t about to give it up, he said.

Outside of work, Kevin Lines hunted whenever he could, Mindy Lines said.

Their son, Willy Lines, learned about his father’s love of hunting when he was a toddler, Mindy Lines said. If her husband had a good catch, he would wake Willy up to show him.

“I think whether it was hunting or whatever … when you’re not feeling the best, that can be good medicine in and of itself,” said Willy Lines, who’s now 36.

Kevin Lines’ oncologist didn’t approve of him traveling, carrying a 70-pound pack and bow hunting for 10 days, Lines said, but he agreed to schedule the chemo around it.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma can be fatal, but Lines said the thought of dying never crossed his mind.

“You gotta have a positive attitude, and I think I have that,” he said. “It’s how I approach my life.”

Every day Kevin and Mindy Lines told each other, “Today’s a good day,” Mindy Lines said. Some days she didn’t believe it, she said, but they said it anyway.

Their positive attitude got them through the highs and lows of chemo, Kevin Lines said.

A perfect match

Lines’ oncologist told him in 2012 that the chemo was working to stop his cancer from growing, but it would always come back — unless he received a new immune system through a bone marrow transplant.

Since none of Lines’ family members could donate, his request was put on the Be The Match registry — a global bone marrow transplant support network — in order to try to find a donor whose stem cells would match his.

The chances of finding an unrelated donor match are improving over time as more people volunteer, according to the American Cancer Society. But Lines’ odds were still a flip of a coin.

More than 750 miles away in Crofton, Ky., the registry found a match.

Forty-year-old Jason Johnson had signed onto the registry nearly a decade ago after a member of his community was diagnosed with cancer.

When Johnson learned he was Lines’ perfect match, he agreed to donate without hesitation, he said.

“All I knew is that he was 60 years old, lived in the U.S. and had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that I was pretty much his last hope,” Johnson said.

After successful procedures, both Johnson and Lines agreed to release their contact information. They learned their families had a lot in common — including hunting.

“It was kind of like they were family almost from the get-go,” Johnson said.

Last summer, the two met face-to-face at a surprise party for Kevin’s 60th birthday and the Lines’ anniversary.

Mindy Lines was speechless when she arrived at the party, she said, but the biggest surprise came when Jason Johnson and his family emerged from behind a curtain.

Then it was Kevin Lines’ turn to be speechless. He might still be in treatment for cancer without Johnson’s donation.

“What do you tell a person that saved your life?” he said. “It was overwhelming.”

Lines felt he had been given so much, he said. Wanting to give back to the community, he decided to work in conservation again.

“My grandchildren are extremely important to me, and I want them to have a potential future in hunting and fishing,” he said.

Besides working to restore pheasant population, Lines said he doesn’t have too many plans. He doesn’t plan much anymore, he said, and just lives day-to-day.

Mindy Lines is just happy she has the chance to grow old with the man she loves, she said, thanks to a stranger from Kentucky.

“Kevin’s gotten to see more grandkids. Kevin’s been able to go hunting. Kevin’s been able to live,” she said. “And there aren’t words for that.”