It was mid–July 2010. Colonel R. Steven Hedgren was just finishing up two years as chief secretary (second in command) of the Salvation Army’s USA Eastern Territory. He and his wife, Colonel Judith A. Hedgren, would soon become commissioners; he would be territorial commander, and she would be territorial president of women’s ministries. They were getting ready for a two–week vacation to Florida, where their daughter, Heather, was about to have her first child.
They were to leave on Saturday. But on Friday, everything changed.
“The day started for me as the best day of my life,” Judy says. “I was finishing up one job and would be starting another, one we were so excited about. I arrived home at 5:30 or 6. I was still in uniform when I got the call from Steve. ‘You’ve got to come right away,’ he said.”
He was at the hospital with excruciating back pain. It had begun back in March, and he had already been to the emergency room once, on July 4, when doctors gave him medicine to treat strained muscles.
But this time, it was so much worse. Tests had shown nothing. The doctor said there was one more test she could perform.
The initial shock
At 4:30, the results were in. Steve overhead the doctor in conversation.
“I heard the word cancer,” he said.
Then the doctor told him it was a cancer called multiple myeloma, and that it was incurable.
“It was really surreal,” Steve says. “The doctor might as well have been speaking Greek. All these words I’d never heard before were coming at me. I had thought that with every cancer, there would be a chance of fighting it off. Then I thought, ‘Lord, this can’t be me.’ I just shut down into a mode of ‘I’m just going to get through this moment.’ ”
What had been the best day of Judy’s life suddenly became the worst.
“It was a nightmare,” she remembers. “He is the love of my life,” Judy says. “And I heard the word I never wanted to hear: incurable.”
Multiple myeloma is a cancer of the bone and bone marrow. For Steve, it had manifested in a large tumor that had wrapped around his spinal cord.
“The only thing to do now is treat it,” the doctor said. “You’re not going to Florida.”
The news got out to the Salvation Army world.
“It was incredible how people responded,” Steve says. “People were praying—officers and soldiers here and around the world. It was so overwhelming.”
When he reported for radiation treatment, God provided again. The radiation therapist, it turned out, lived next door to an officer couple the Hedgrens knew well, and he took a personal interest in Steve’s care.
“He got us through the first part of the journey,” Judy says.
Twelve days of radiation reduced the tumor so that Steve was out of immediate danger from the tumor snapping his spinal cord—or killing him.
Important phone call
At the hospital, Steve spoke to General Shaw Clifton, the worldwide leader of the Army, who makes decisions about major appointments such as territorial leadership.
“That was an important phone call,” Steve says. “He could have said that under the circumstances, we need to make some adjustments. But he didn’t say that. He said, ‘Get well. You will have time to get well.’ I was incredibly grateful for that.”
While he was in treatment, he met some doctors who had a connection with Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and he began chemotherapy treatment there.
Even the relatively mild dose took a toll.
“I lost 50 pounds within a month and a half,” Steve says. “The radiation and chemo caused nausea and burned my esophagus, so it was hard to swallow. At least I could sleep; some cancer patients can’t do that.”
The time was approaching for the Hedgrens’ September public installation as territorial leaders. Judy wasn’t sure Steve was strong enough to make it. After a day of meetings, Judy came home and found Steve dressed in his uniform and ready to go to the evening meeting.
“What a great sight that was!” she says.
The Hedgrens’ kids, Heather and Matthew, held the flags for the installation ceremony. When he spoke, Steve shared openly what had happened to him and that he expected to be in continued treatment.
“But the great news about all this is—I have an Army that is praying for me!” he said triumphantly to the congregation.
People stood in a sustained ovation, to affirm him.
“When the kids saw the response that night, that solidified their own calling to officership,” Steve says. “That’s what completed it for them.
Heather and her husband, Jay Needham, and Matthew and his wife, Jessica, are now cadets, in training to become Salvation Army officers in the Southern Territory.
Stem cell transplant
Steve spent the next five months on chemo, gaining strength and learning how to live with the treatment. He went to the High Council, a meeting in London to elect a new General of the Army. When he returned, it was time for a stem cell transplant.
His red blood cells were harvested on March 8, 2011. On March 9, he received the heaviest dose of chemo yet.
“It kills everything—your own blood cells, everything—and brings you almost to the point of death,” Steve says.
On March 11, his own red blood cells were poured back into him.
“As we watched that, we couldn’t help but think of the song, ‘There’s power in the blood!’ ”
After 17 days in the hospital in isolation, Steve went home, but he could have only minimal contact for 90 days.
“Some people would think I had a pretty nice deal,” Steve says. “But when you can’t have contact with people, it really gets to you.”
Another big Army event was approaching in June: the commissioning of new officers. That was right about the time the doctor said, “You’re free to do whatever you think you can do.”
“The doctor had no idea what he was saying,” Judy says. Commissioning is really a weeklong series of meetings, and Steve would be speaking seven times.
“You just had to pace yourself,” Steve says.
From that point forward, Steve was to see the doctor only once every three months. He would be on chemo for the rest of his life, but because he could do it at home, it was manageable.
Then, after another major meeting in March 2012, Steve contracted pneumonia and had other complications.
‘This is the time’
“We had to move to the next level of chemo, and it would have to be given intravenously,” Steve says. “I was tethered to the hospital weekly, and the after–effects became increasingly difficult, with frequent trips to the hospital.”
Steve was told that the cancer had become aggressive and that his immune system was compromised.
Then came these words from the doctor: “This is the time. You need to be with your children and grandchildren.”
“We felt that we couldn’t continue as territorial leaders,” Steve says. “It was the most painful decision of our lives.”
He went to International Headquarters in London on business and spoke with Commissioner Barry Swanson, Chief of the Staff (second in command of the worldwide Army). Swanson agreed with Steve and Judy that they should step down as territorial leaders, but with three and a half years left until retirement, they would still play a consultative role as secretaries for mission in the USA Southern Territory.
When the news was announced, once again, the response was immediate and overwhelming. One letter from a dear friend included a quote from Henry Nouwen that the Hedgrens treasure: “I leave you with the image of a leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence …”
“That’s him,” says Judy of her husband.
Steve says that he is glad he spent two years as chief secretary before becoming territorial commander, getting to know the people of the territory before he became ill.
“It’s been a joy to lead the Eastern Territory,” Judy says. “We’ve been here for four years and have loved the people and the places.”
What would Steve like his legacy to be as territorial commander?
“I’d like people to say that I emphasized the importance of people, of relationships, of the Army providing hope and meeting critical needs with the vision of our Founders,” Steve says.
These days, Steve’s thoughts have been turning to what eternity will be like.
“It looks different, depending on what I’m going through at the time. But one thing I know and claim is Job 19:25: ‘I know that my redeemer lives and one day I shall see him stand upon the earth.’ ”
In the meantime, both Steve and Judy continue to trust in God’s provision. They are still asking for a miracle—and for prayer that they will be able to finish their last three and a half years of officership strong.
“His plan for our lives is perfect,” Judy says.