In the days leading up to Emerge 2013, Jack Allison wasn’t even planning on making the trip to Minneapolis.
“My sales manager who handles our religious market was eight months pregnant and could not travel,” says Allison, director of sales and marketing at the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel. “I was attending as a stand-in.”
What he didn’t know was that his life would change drastically during that last-minute trip to the Religious Conference Management Association's annual conference, which he’d attended multiple times in the past.
When Allison got to Emerge, he met up with people he knew from previous conferences to enjoy the opening reception. But the following morning left him literally speechless—when he awoke at 4:00 a.m., he had lost almost all ability to communicate verbally.
By 8:00 a.m. he was undergoing tests at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. By noon, doctors informed him that he had a brain tumor. Allison recalls being “very, very scared.”
“[The doctor] said there was no time to mess around with this,” he says. “They were going to have to do surgery immediately... They were very clear that it was serious.”
Allison, 49, was diagnosed as having a Stage 4 glioblastoma, a brain tumor that grew on his left temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain that affects speech and motor skills. The success rate of surgery to remove this type of tumor is 20 percent, and there was a high risk that afterward Allison would never walk or talk again. But five hours after surgery, he was both walking and talking, and feeling very thankful to be alive.
Supported By Loved Ones and Strangers
Though Allison resides in Palm Springs, Calif., almost 2,000 miles away from Minneapolis, his parents still live in his hometown of Shelbina, Mo., a small town in the northeastern part of the state. A friend of Allison’s was able to drive them to Minneapolis to be with him during his surgery, which coincidentally took place on January 30, Allison’s mother’s birthday. Allison’s employer, Remington Hotels, put his family up free of charge in their Hilton hotel near the Mall of America.
Emerge attendees also sprang into action when Dean Jones, RCMA’s director of conferences and events, informed everyone of Allison’s ailment at breakfast. RCMA members, many of whom had never even met Allison, were offering airline miles to his family, visiting him at his bedside, and contacting local church pastors to pray with him. A giant poster board was set up near the registration area at Emerge, and almost everyone stopped by to offer Allison well wishes in writing. “I thought it was pretty remarkable how people, once they heard the news, tried to find out how they could help,” Jones says. “Even for those who didn’t know him at all, he was part of our family.”
Allison says the amount of love and faith around him was “utterly amazing” and helped him get through the next few days post-surgery in Minneapolis. “A number of people, I had no idea who they were, but they were sending prayers, sending thoughts,” he says. “I think people have to understand that it is the circle of faith around you that really contributes to one’s well-being.”
Time to Heal
After just a few days of recovery, Allison and his family drove back to Missouri, where his skull healed for nearly a month before he flew back to California for radiation and chemotherapy. Being sidelined for so long was tough for Allison, a “born workaholic” and health nut who previously worked out seven days a week. He kept busy by making daily posts on Facebook to update a few hundred friends and family members on his improvement, and more than 500 cards and gifts have shown up at his doorstep to help cheer him on. “I feel loved and I feel how very small I am in this world,” Allison says. “It’s been kind of an awakening.”
But after a few months off, Allison joked with friends that he knew it was time to get back to work when he “was using Lysol wipes to clean the doorknob.” He was fortunate enough to have very few side effects from the chemotherapy, allowing him to return to work full time on April 15. At press time, he had just completed his final treatment—and he was running 10 to 13 miles four days a week.
Faith and Hope
Allison’s near future includes more checkups and another MRI to monitor his progress. While there is an 80 percent chance that his tumor will return in the next five years, he says not to count him out yet. “If there is a 20 percent success rate, I have to be in that.”
Allison attributes his positive outlook to the power of prayer, especially with the small congregation he’s become a part of in California. Having lived there just over a year, finding a place of worship similar to the small-town church he grew up in filled the “missing link in my life,” he says. “It’s just made the difference. This experience would’ve been a lot tougher without that.”
Allison also forged a stronger connection to his faith throughout his ordeal by getting the chance to meet and connect with so many members of RCMA, despite the harrowing circumstances. “What I’ve learned during this process is what’s great about an organization like RCMA: It isn’t about whose religion is right and whose religion is wrong,” he says. “It’s about a connection to a higher being—so many types of congregations and types of religion and types of people all believing in the one center faith.”
Though it was a last-minute change of plans that brought Allison to RCMA, he says he believes that his story was meant to unfold at Emerge the way it did. “There are things that happen to people every day, but I get to have at least the blessing of knowing that I was given a diagnosis, not a sudden death,” he says. “I think it was already in the master plan.”