A family's pride, passion and prayers

Angie, Jerry, Kay and Dan Murphy of Clive band together in their support of Paul, the son and sibling who survived leukemia and is now a Marine stationed in Iraq.


Like so many first-time mothers, Angie Murphy of Clive was eager for the delivery of her son. She wanted to count his fingers and toes, wrap him in his first homemade blanket, rock him to sleep at night and later help him learn to walk and teach him his ABCs.

Angie got all of that, but while other little boys played with trucks and fire engines, the new mother watched as her little boy's hair fell out and his face became bloated. As other boys jumped and played, her son, Paul, grew listless.

After a long, painful battle with leukemia, Paul overcame the disease.

Today, he's fighting another battle for his life, as a Marine in Iraq.

Again, his mother eagerly stands by, praying her son will make it through another day and yet all the time knowing she can do little to control his fate.

"God didn't pull him out of leukemia to kill him in Iraq," Angie said.

Paul was 26 months old when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of cancer in children. The cancer attacks the blood and bone marrow and worsens quickly if not treated.

Angie knew something was wrong with her son after he fell at the zoo and developed tiny bruises that looked like freckles. A couple of days later, he was sleeping 22 hours a day. She took him to a physician, who suspected Paul had injured his spleen during his fall and surgery was scheduled.

The surgeon happened to be someone her husband, Jerry, knew from his accounting practice and they struck up a conversation in the hallway just prior to Paul's procedure. After learning more about Paul's condition, the surgeon refused to operate.

Angie calls this "the God moment." If her husband hadn't known the surgeon, she said it's likely Paul would have bled to death on the operating table because of the cancer.

For three years, Paul underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Angie, a music teacher, quit her job with the Bettendorf school district and took her son an hour away to Iowa City for daily treatments. Paul doesn't remember much except the painful spinal taps he called "back pokes."

Early on, the Murphys learned to lean on each other and exercise their faith to get through tough moments.

To Iraq in October
It's been more than 15 years since Paul, now 21, fought cancer, and the chances of it recurring are slim, his mother said. Because of side effects, Paul learned slower as a child and struggles today with short-term memory loss.

Overcoming such a huge battle makes it sting just a little more now that Paul is risking his life overseas.

Paul is a driver for logistics personnel. It's not uncommon for him to be in direct conflict, his mother said.

Paul's been in Iraq since October and recently was caught up in a major gunfight after his crew was ambushed. He saw friends and colleagues killed. Paul told his mother he couldn't remember all that happened during the gunfight because it was intense and he went into survival mode.

"He told me if there is a hell, this is it," his mother said. "He doesn't want to be in Iraq anymore."

The Murphys hadn't heard from Paul in quite some time and then he called on Dec. 28.

"They are back at base," his mother said. "They got done with their mission. He said it wasn't as bad as the first mission. Thank God."

Paul told his mother he should move to Kuwait soon.

Angie and her husband have two other children, Kay, 18, and Dan, 16. They're a close-knit family who pray every day for Paul's safe return.

Paul's decision
Paul graduated in 2002 from Dowling Catholic High School and was attending North Iowa Area Community College in Mason City when he decided to join the Marines. He didn't know at the time what he wanted to do with his future, so the military seemed like a good choice.

Paul's oncologist had to write a letter to the military saying he was healthy and strong enough to enlist because they weren't going to let him join, his mother said.

The family accepted Paul's decision and off he went.

The Murphys last saw Paul in July. They're hoping he can at least come home again in May for Kay's graduation.

So, with their cell phones always turned on, the Murphy clan continues to send Paul weekly care packages and his brother and sister write to him often. Kay is a cheerleader at Valley High School and Dan plays sports there. Unlike many siblings who fight through their adolescence, the Murphy children are friends.

Angie said the last several months have transformed her first son who once lay tired and weak in his mother's arms. He's grown into a man.

"He talks more spiritually and about what he's going to do when he gets back," his mother said. "He's changed."

Paul, who didn't know what he wanted to be when he grew up, is now leaning toward a profession as a firefighter or police officer.

Support for family
Returning to her passion for music, Angie is a music instructor at St. Francis of Assisi School, 7075 Ashworth Road in West Des Moines. Her students, the faculty and parents have shown great support for the mother enveloped with worry.

Parents decorated her room in red, white and blue. Students wrote letters, drew pictures and signed a pillowcase for Paul and supporters leave secret messages in Angie's school mailbox almost daily.

Even with all the support, Angie has moments of panic. They come when she sees a headline while standing in line at the grocery store or when one of her students gives her a hug for no obvious reason.

"I feel hundreds praying for him here in my community," she said. "They talk about him, and if we didn't talk about him there would be this absence."