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Wife's battle with cancer leads Utah doctor to share lessons of hope

Park City — Dr. Robert Winn walked up the road toward a weedy trailhead, retracing the steps he had taken so many times before.

It was a recent July afternoon, and the sun shone in a brilliantly blue Park City sky as Winn — “call me Winnie,” he says — looked up at a winding road and down to the gentle brook that flows past the parking lot where he took a phone call 12 years ago that forever changed his life.

On May 27, 2005, Winn’s wife had called to say she had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. Immediately Winn’s medical training kicked into gear, and it mingled with a sickening gut instinct that told him something he didn’t want to hear: his wife had cancer.

By the time she got to the hospital and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, Nancy Winn was close to death. To cope with the devastating news, Winn started writing letters to friends and family that were later compiled into a book called “Night Reflections, A True Story of Friendship, Love, Cancer and Survival.” At that time, Winn knew writing down his thoughts would help him — but he didn’t yet consider that it could also be a means of helping others.

Now, Winn uses his book as a tool, traveling around and shedding light for cancer patients on a mystifying treatment process, empathizing with family members, giving insight to doctors, motivating those who fundraise for cancer research, and offering his support to anyone he meets along the way. He does not hesitate to write his cellphone number in the books he signs and delivers at book groups and presentations throughout the country.

For Winn, visiting this trail is a reminder of sorrow and consolation. It is the literal path that brought him through the depths of despair and back, from anguish to ecstasy, as his wife battled cancer for 2.5 years. She endured a roller coaster of ups and downs, but after receiving chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, she survived.

“When my wife was sick, two things were my solace: my patients and biking,” says Winn, who has been a practicing doctor in Park City since 1978. “That was the only way I could make it through. … This has been an incredible opportunity that’s allowed me to give back in a different way than the rest of my career."

Winn has always practiced medicine with an “old-school” style, Nancy Winn says. He’s always given his number to patients. He always called the next day to see if his patients’ fevers went down, or if they were feeling better. As the medical director for Deer Valley, Canyons and Park City ski resorts, Winn always followed up with patients who’d been hurt on the mountains, tracking them down in the various local hospitals.

“In the community that has also been evident because he’s been there for people,” Nancy Winn says. “He’s followed through. He’s been consistent. He’s gone the extra mile, I would say, all along, both in a professional way and in a friendship way. That’s just the way he’s always been.”

Since writing his book, Winn has forged new relationships with cancer patients and their families. He’s walked bewildered parents through the process, explaining terminology, test results, even soothing a 4-year-old faced with the prospect of her father losing his fight against cancer. In some cases, he has returned to the very hospital room Nancy Winn occupied during her own battle, as he visited a friend or stranger, in a kind of déjà vu, walking others down the road he experienced a decade ago. To some, the effort would be a burden, but to Winn it is a privilege.

“When I am asked at book talks ‘What did you learn?’ I consistently say one thing. The best thing you can do with a friend or loved one facing a life-threatening illness is to help them face their own death,” Winn says. “And you hope they don’t die, but if you can establish a link and achieve true intimacy, you should jump at the chance. There is no reason not to discuss their lives … and any memories that might give them a chance to reflect.”

Back in the parking lot, Winn’s phone rang as he stood near the same place he stood years ago and feared the worst. On this sunny, bright July day, those dark times were more like shadows in the background, a memory of the past instead of a looming specter over the present. Life was happy now, and busy.

Winn received at least five calls in a little over an hour, and each time he answered politely and explained he would call back later. This time though, it was Nancy calling. He answered without hesitation.

When Winn first met Nancy, he said he felt a bolt of lightning. She, in turn, fell in love with his kind and gentle nature. As much as she didn’t want her husband to write weekly emails about her status — let alone a book — she acquiesced when friends convinced her the story could help others.

“It gives people hope,” Winn’s friend and medical practice partner Kathleen Thomas said about the Winns’ story. “It’s really down to the level where things are just bad, and you still have hope.”

Winn brightens at the idea of lifting others. After all, when times were the hardest, the old-school doctor who was voted by Park City magazine in 2016 as one of 40 people who most shaped the town says the thing that helped him most was his community.

He plans to pay it forward for as long as he can.

“Park City has given back to me 100 times more than I have ever done,” Winn says. “I never cooked a meal, cleaned my house or did my laundry for the better part of a year … I feel like I’ve gotten far more than I’ve ever given, but I’ve sure tried to do whatever I could.”