John and Melissa Varner

Dealing with the devastating illness of their son, one couple found their marriage and their finances falling apart—until others stepped in to help

Melissa Varner waited in the Cleveland, Ohio, hospital’s imaging room in August 2005, watching the clock. Her six-week-old son, Tristan, was having a barium swallow test for acid reflux. Everything was supposed to go smoothly, yet the doctors looked concerned as the test dragged on.

Melissa summoned courage to ask what was wrong. A doctor hesitated before saying, “We are looking for where his body parts even are. They aren’t where they are supposed to be!”

Tristan’s intestinal system was backwards. The scan showed that he had a life-threatening birth defect called intestinal malrotation. “If we don’t do surgery quickly, Tristan could die,” doctors told Melissa. Her heart sank. She felt alone. Her husband, John, was out of town, and her mother was watching her three older children.

Tristan’s challenging health journey started that day. Chronic illnesses were about to strike the Varners’ lives, marriage, and finances. Their best chance to save Tristan—and their family—was to rely on kind friends and strangers.

Tristan Varner

“Something Else Is Wrong”

John and Melissa had been living “picture-perfect lives.” John worked for a mortgage banker in sales and operations, earning a triple-digit salary and travelling the United States for business. Melissa, a self-proclaimed type A personality, was a homemaker in the three-story house she grew up in. “Once Tristan was born, life was turned upside down, into uncertainty,” Melissa says. “Instead of us controlling the ride, we’re along for the ride.”

Surgery kept Tristan alive. But during a follow-up visit, a doctor said, “Something else is wrong.” Tristan suffered from fevers, with temperatures as high as 105.6 degrees. The doctors ran tests, ruling out one illness after another but getting no answers.

“With chronic and undiagnosed illnesses, everything is a fight,” Melissa explains. “Finances, answers, doctors, insurance, time—it wears you down physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”

The Varners praying

As months of testing passed without answers, Melissa and John felt the stress in their marriage. “We were so drained that we had nothing left to give, not even to each other,” Melissa recalls. “Not many people understood the path we were on, so we seemed to pour out all the frustration, stress, and aggravation onto each other.”

Medical costs depleted their savings, which frustrated John. “I was being selfish and needed to grow up,” he says. “I loved the money I made, and kids were expensive. Sick kids were even more expensive.” As Melissa prioritized Tristan’s wellness, John pulled away.

Melissa heard that warmer weather would be more comfortable for Tristan. John didn’t want to move, so, desperate to help Tristan, Melissa took the children, leaving behind her childhood home, the church she grew up in, her parents and husband, and moved to Williamson County, near her sister, in October 2006. Driving past the cornfields on the outskirts of Round Rock, she thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”

The Varner children

A New Life

Melissa could afford to bring only the children’s beds and dressers from Ohio. The family sat on the floor to eat meals, do homework, and watch movies on a portable DVD player. “I’d lay out a blanket or sheet, and we’d have a picnic. I think the kids thought it was fun,” Melissa says.

Melissa had been in Texas for less than two months when Christmas rolled around. She didn’t have any extra money for gifts for the children. A student’s family surprised the children with gifts, and a high school class rallied to buy the family gift cards. It was a Christmas to remember. Soon after, Round Rock Christian hired Melissa to teach. Touched by their support, Melissa felt less alone, but she missed John.

Melissa talked to Dr. Rick Brann, senior pastor at Victory Baptist Church, about her marriage. To the Varners’ surprise, Pastor Brann called John, introduced himself, and said, “I’m not in the habit of counseling men’s wives without them.” He called John weekly over two months, which John thought strange at first. But he enjoyed the calls and started arriving home early enough to be sitting down for the weekly sessions.

John Varner and the bible

After weeks encouraging the Varners to work out their marriage, Pastor Brann told John, “Look, you’re a great guy and Melissa is a great woman. You have a decision to make.”

“The way [Pastor Brann] put his faith into action turned my heart back to my family,” John says. “I had to figure out what my priorities in life were going to be. Ultimately, I decided my family had to come first.” More than two months after Melissa moved to Texas, John left his life in Cleveland—job, house, and furniture—to reunite with his family in Texas. He moved into their 900-square foot apartment and tried to fit himself into their routine. “We felt like strangers, but we knew we loved one another,” Melissa says.

“When John came to Texas, he and Melissa melded together quickly, and their marriage was enhanced greatly,” Pastor Brann recalls. “They loved one another, and they focused their priorities, putting Christ first. With sacrifice and dedication, they rebuilt their family, becoming a faithful and valuable family in our church.”

But their struggles weren’t over.

Melissa and John Varner

Crazy Provision

In February 2009, after three and a half years of testing, Tristan was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis and Lyme disease. The Varners needed $22,000 to seek treatment for Lyme disease in Arizona. The Varners were so relieved to have answers that it took some time to grasp the costs involved. They felt embarrassed to ask for help from communities who had already done so much, so they simply asked Pastor Brann and their family to pray. But their friends had different ideas.

Pastor Brann shared the Varners’ history, the diagnoses, and the treatment expenses with his congregation. Later, he got a phone call from an anonymous donor who asked Pastor Brann to deliver a check to the Varners for the full cost of the treatment. “I spoke to Melissa and her mother, who both broke into very happy and appreciative tears,” he says.

“[We were] overwhelmed that someone would actually do that,” Melissa says. “And we could tell you story after story of crazy provision like that.”

The Varners

Melissa’s coworkers at Round Rock Christian School partnered with Victory Baptist to put on a carnival-like fundraiser, the “Tristan Cup,” inspired by Disney’s Lightning McQueen, Tristan’s favorite character at the time. Melissa thought that no one would show up, but family, friends, friends-of-friends, and complete strangers came to support Tristan. One preschooler donated her piggy-bank full of coins—a little under two dollars. Within three hours, the event raised $8,000.

Melissa took Tristan to Arizona in August 2009. They stayed eleven weeks, receiving even more abundant provisions from miraculously kind strangers, including a family that hosted them during treatment. Tristan responded positively to the treatment. His face had color, and he wasn’t constantly crying. “He looked like a different child when we got home!” Melissa says.

Giving Back

Now John works for Victory Baptist, the church that helped save their marriage, while Melissa studies to become a surgical technologist and works at Dell Children’s. They’ve adopted two children and live in a large home in Hutto, “bigger than the one we left in Ohio,” John says, smiling.

After receiving such help from family, friends, and strangers during eight years of battling illnesses, the Varners have opened their hearts to give back as much as they can, “to make a difference like others did in our lives. Everything we walked through prepared our hearts to take care of more than just ourselves,” John explains. “It boosted our faith to trust God for provision for everything.”

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