Prayer carried Carl Buckman through one of the most difficult seasons in his life.

Buckman, a familiar face who has worked the front desk at Southeast Christian Church’s Sports & Fitness Center since 2010, found out he had esophageal cancer in February. Following surgery, Buckman is close to a full recovery and jokes about the thousands of people who prayed for him.

“I tell people every once in a while, ‘Well, God looked down and said, “What’s all these prayers for this guy Carl? Who is this guy? I better do something for him or everyone’s going to be mad at Me,”’” Buckman said.

Buckman missed about three months of work, and he looked forward to returning and seeing all the kids who visit the Sports & Fitness Center.

“They love me, and I love them,” said Buckman, 73. “I tease them a lot and act like I’m mad at them. They just start laughing because they know that I’m not. Almost every one of them, when they leave, turn around and say, ‘See you later, Carl.’ I never realized this. One of our volunteers was telling me the other day, ‘Those kids really love you because every one of them won’t walk out without saying goodbye and they’ll mention your name.’”

Routine checkup

Last fall, Buckman noticed he occasionally had problems swallowing food, and he told his doctor during a routine checkup in February.

“I wasn’t going to even mention it because to me it wasn’t anything significant,” Buckman said. “He said, ‘Well, let’s get that checked.’”

Doctors found a tumor about the size of a quarter on Buckman’s esophagus. After six weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, Buckman underwent a complex, eight-and-a-half-hour surgery.

“They scheduled the surgery for July 24, on my dad’s birthday,” Buckman added. “As a matter of fact, he had the same thing … They removed his esophagus as they did mine 40 years ago.”

‘I believe he was an angel’

Following the surgery, Buckman spent 16 days in the hospital. The first few days were the hardest.

“I was kind of depressed,” Buckman said. “I thought, ‘Man, I don’t know why I did this. Maybe I should have just let it go.’ I was really feeling sorry for myself and having a pity party.”

Buckman told his nurse to change his living will, which stated to resuscitate him as long as he was not brain dead, to “do not resuscitate.”

The next day, Buckman was reminded God has a plan for him no matter his age.

“This doctor came in, and I believe he was an angel,” Buckman added. “I really do because he sat down on my bed and said, ‘Can we talk for a few minutes?’ I said, ‘Yea, sure.’ And we talked for about an hour. He talked to me about why I should want to live and God has a purpose for me. It was all about God, and God wants me to do something. He told me, ‘The kids at the gym really need you.’ I don’t know where he came from, and he wasn’t on my doctor team. I never saw him before or after that. I even asked one of the nurses who he was, and he didn’t know. If he wasn’t an angel, God sent him.”

Buckman’s recovery went faster than expected.

He had minimal pain following the surgery, and though he was expected to have a feeding tube until October, he was eating normally in three weeks.

“The doctors were just amazed,” he said. “I was a poster child at how fast the recovery was … I told them and didn’t make no bones about it, ‘It was God.’”

Thankful for people

God continued to intervene through countless people.

“More than anything, I can’t express my gratitude enough for all the love that people showed me,” Buckman said.

Buckman received about 200 thank-you cards and 25 gift cards.

One couple offered to pay his utility bill for two months.

His boss, Sports & Fitness Operations Associate Jon Searle, called two to three times a week to see how Buckman was doing.

Sports & Fitness Control Center host Kris Mullaney covered his shifts while he was gone.

Buckman also had the chance to mend his strained relationship with his older brother, David, who visited him in the hospital.

Buckman’s wife of almost two years, Ling, was there every step of the way.

“A year and a half later, I got this cancer, and she was there to take care of me,” Buckman said. “She is the best caregiver there is … I thank God he put her in my path.”

Buckman has been back at work for a month. Earlier this month, some of the guys who play basketball at the Sports & Fitness Center gave him a gift.

“It shocked me,” Buckman said. “It was $350. That just floored me because it was only 10 or 15 guys. More than anything, it struck me how much they really cared to do that … When I came back, ‘Carl, you’re back.’ It moves me that so many people love me like that.”