FAIRMONT—“This is real.”
It wasn’t until her first radiation treatment that Linda Carroll Zuerlein fully realized that it wasn’t a bad dream. It was cancer. It was real.
Zuerlein – Fairmont’s Village Clerk since 1991 -- was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Tumors have also settled in her spine, including a grapefruit-sized tumor at the base of her tailbone.
“One doctor said ‘abnormal cells.’ I said, ‘You mean tumors?’ They said well, we don’t like to use the word ‘tumors’ because people think ‘cancer.’ I’m a straight-shooter and I want to know what I’ve got. Where am I at? Where is it? Let me know – don’t sugar-coat it, because for me that doesn’t do any good.”
A straight shooter, indeed. “She’s vocal and we love it,” said Central City Clerk Linda Jensen. Jensen is also the president of the Nebraska Municipal Clerks Association (NMCA), and said she knows Zuerlein primarily from NMCA gatherings.
“She lets you know if she knows you, and makes sure she talks to you; if she doesn’t know you, she always introduces herself,” Jensen said. She said Zuerlein always makes an impression at NMCA’s themed gatherings – even once dressing up as a cow. “She would always come and dress for the theme. That’s her personality; she goes whole-hog. She’s all-in for everything.”
It’s Zuerlein’s “whole-hog, all-in” personality that inspired her friends’ and family’s call to arms against her diagnosis: “Live Like Linda.”
“She’s the kind of person that you met in life that has the perfect balance of spiritual health, and able to toast a long day of work with a cold drink,” said friend Shelia Lauby. “Linda will laugh with you, laugh at you, and at the same time make you feel like they’ve done something right -- just by being with her.”
Touching the lives of those around her – whether colleagues, family or friends – is the norm for Zuerlein, said Jim Warrelmann, Housing Program Manager for Southeast Nebraska Development District. Warrelmann has worked with Zuerlein on major municipal successes like Community Development Block Grants. “She is great to work with. Linda has a passion for making her community better. She’s always putting community needs above her own,” Warrelmann said.
Following her diagnosis, however, Zuerlein had to realize she needed to prioritize her own needs.
“When you can’t do some of your basic needs – when people come and offer to help, you just say, you know what? That is wonderful. Just let people help you; it’s difficult, and I don’t know why that is,” she said.
Zuerlein said her community support has been overwhelming. “I’ve got a wonderful support group of family and friends. One nurse said ‘we can screen visitors for you.’ I said, ‘no these are all friends of mine.’”
“I have a sister-in-law from Council Bluffs who said there would never be this outpouring of support in a larger town. It’s just a testament to what small communities do. You don’t have that connectedness that you get in a small community.”
“If they get rejuvenated, they rejuvenate me,” Zuerlein said.
The “Live Like Linda” project’s aim is to obtain funds in an effort to alleviate Zuerlein’s growing medical bills. Now home from her hospital stay, Zuerlein has, for the most part, kept finances in the back of her mind. There are more important things to think about, she said. “My main concern is getting my legs to walk. The breast cancer is important, but I want to be able to walk.”
This clarity came after the chaos at the onset of her diagnosis. “It was very fast and furious. You’re just kind of spinning,” Zuerlein said. “My first radiation treatment at the hospital was probably one of my darker times. This is real. You lay there that long and that stillness… I found prayer and reflection laying there and listening to the machine going around you.”
As she takes care of herself, Zuerlein still stays involved in the Fairmont community. She spends 3-4 hours a day working – sometimes remotely, sometimes in the office. Fellow area clerks have pitched in at the Fairmont Village Office, which Zuerlein said is important, even in a world of automatic withdrawals and email. “People like to have that face-to-face connection. People still like to come into the office.”
Zuerlein’s face – and heart – have touched many lives, Lauby said.
“She’s the type of person that you only meet once in life, and you can only hope that you can Live Like Linda.”
A benefit for Linda Carroll Zuerlein, “Live Like Linda,” is Saturday, Aug. 24 at the Fairmont Legion. The event starts at 5 p.m. with a silent auction and meal. The Bricks Band will perform from 8 p.m. until midnight.