Neighbors Helping Newcomers

When one new Woodbury resident got a scary diagnosis, her neighborhood stepped in to help.

When Michelle Anderson-Horecka and her husband, Bill, moved to Woodbury from Coon Rapids just over two years ago, they couldn’t have anticipated how big a change that move would be. Shortly after settling in to their new home, Michelle was diagnosed with a rare pancreatic condition. Though her health issues have certainly made her life more difficult, both she and Bill say that this dark time has been brightened through the care and support of their neighbors.

Michelle says that she and Bill just “happened to find” their Woodbury neighborhood. “We didn’t realize that [the house] was actually around the block from Bill’s aunt and uncle. That’s been a huge blessing.” In July 2016, Michelle and Bill moved to Woodbury. That August, she started feeling increasingly sick. For years, she’s dealt with chronic pancreatitis, though until recently, doctors couldn’t figure out why. But when she visited a new doctor, Michelle finally got the answers she’d been looking for. Though it had long gone misdiagnosed, her chronic pancreatitis was the result of a rare birth defect—so rare, in fact, that she’s currently the only person in North America with such a diagnosis.
Answers were comforting, but they also came with news that Michelle would need to undergo intensive treatments that wildly disrupted her day-to-day life. “At times I was able to return to work, and at other times, I wasn’t,” she says. Last October, she had a feeding tube placed and returned to work part-time, but she says that was only possible because her then-brand-new neighbors stepped in to help.

“The support we’ve gotten from the neighbors is just unreal,” Michelle says. “They’ve picked up our son for us. I’ve been able to call not just our aunt and uncle but many other neighbors and just say, ‘I’m feeling really sick, could you come and help me put him to bed or give him a bath?’ My sister-in-law organized a meal train—almost everybody who signed up to help us were people from the neighborhood, and about half of those were neighbors that we’d never met.”

As Michelle’s condition worsened, the support she and Bill received from their neighborhood grew all the more meaningful. After three failed endoscopic surgeries, this May she underwent a complex and invasive procedure called a Whipple surgery, which comes with a three- to five-month recovery period. Michelle returned home from a nearly two-week hospital stay exhausted and in pain, but what she saw when she got home immediately raised her spirits.

Months before Michelle’s surgery, her neighbors quietly took up a collection to re-do her backyard. From landscaping to a brand-new patio to a pergola, the yard was completely transformed. “I looked at Bill and said, ‘What’s going on? When did you have time to do this, and why weren’t you visiting me in the hospital if you had all this time?’” Michelle laughs. “But he told me it was the neighborhood…. They wanted me to have someplace nice to recover from my surgery. I was so surprised and so grateful.”

Bill says their neighbors' help has been invaluable. “To me, it’s a story of how a neighborhood banded together to help make a newcomer feel welcome,” he says. Even after this summer’s grand gesture, the neighborhood support hasn’t stopped. Neighbors give Michelle rides to doctor’s appointments, sit with her as she gets transfusions and are always willing and ready to help her family however—and whenever—they can.

“It makes me really emotional to think about the love and support that people would have for new neighbors…. I count it as a blessing every single day that we’ve moved into this house,” Michelle says. "It's been incredible how they've welcomed us into their neighborhood and their families. They've not only made it physically possible for us to keep the family moving together but also just to keep our hope alive."