Warrior Spirit

Oxford College tennis coach Pernilla Hardin was given weeks to live in August 2020. She believes her decision to ‘trust the Lord completely’ resulted in a supernatural turnaround during a second battle with ovarian cancer.

by Gabriel Stovall

August 3, 2020 was supposed to be the beginning of the end. That was the day Oxford College at Emory University tennis coach Pernilla Hardin settled in at her home with the caregivers from Longleaf Hospice in Covington. She was immediately struck by a tangible sense of what it was supposed to mean. 

As the arrangements were being made, her doctor gave a soft benediction she really did not need to hear to understand her fate. “Mrs. Hardin, we can’t cure you,” he said. “The only way that happens is if the guy upstairs intervenes.” It was a most profound moment. “I knew what that meant,” Hardin said. “Hospice is there to make you comfortable to die.”

Ovarian cancer—the same form of the disease she had beaten into remission before—had returned to Hardin’s body. Some five years and about a half dozen more national championships after her initial battle, the coach was about to face a much bigger challenge. Hardin in 2015 had several surgeries to remove softball- and soccer ball-sized tumors from her stomach, in addition to a full hysterectomy. Near the end of October in 2018, the cancer returned, and she underwent chemotherapy from around Thanksgiving until March 2020. 

“They say that the big thing with ovarian cancer is if it comes back, it comes back so much harder,” Hardin said. “It isn’t a good thing.” Indeed, the cancer and the chemotherapy made for a devastating 1–2 punch that did its best to take her out. “It was the Rubraca inhibitor,” she said. “It was horrible, and it knocked the heck out of me.” 

It was at that time that Hardin started to entertain the idea that the healing for which she had been praying was going to take place in the hereafter. It was also at that time that she decided to place her full trust in God. After a January 2020 doctor’s appointment, Hardin was informed that she had 13 tumors. In April, with the COVID-19 pandemic underway, she leveled with her husband Robert.

“I realized the doctors couldn’t cure me,” Hardin said. “When the pandemic started, I was still trying to take the chemo, but it wasn’t working. I was feeling horrible. The pain level was steadily increasing, and I was spiraling downhill pretty quickly. It was somewhere in April when I looked at Rob and said, ‘This is not working. I just need to go ahead and trust the Lord completely.’” 

It meant backing away from the treatment that seemed to make her feel worse than the disease. While the decision to do so did not improve her physical condition initially, Hardin admits she experienced much more peace about the situation.

“Things started getting really bad in June,” she said. “Rob didn’t think I was going to make it.”

Hardin was born in Hudiksvall, Sweden, where her daughter and 90-year-old mother still live. The daughter was at first hesitant to travel to the United States due to the risks and inconveniences associated with the pandemic. However, when Rob broke the news to the family that doctors were discussing feeding tubes and hospice care, the decision to visit her mother as she approached her last days became much easier. By that time, Hardin had grown tired of the pain and Rob had grown weary of watching his beloved wife waste away.

“I had all this morphine to take for pain, and I never had to use it. When I told the doctor that I had no pain anymore, he told me, ‘Well, God must really be helping you.’”

Oxford College tennis coach Pernilla Hardin

“I remember around that time they were telling us that she had about two, maybe three weeks left,” he said. “At that point, it really was about just trying to make her comfortable and me starting to think about how I was going to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas and all those moments without her.”

Former students and players from Hardin’s tennis teams visited—they came from as far away as Boston, New York and Chicago—to say “thank you” and “goodbye.” For those who knew her best, it was unimaginably difficult to see her in such a state. While she was buoyed by her faith and the love and support of her students, husband and immediately family, Hardin’s body was rapidly deteriorating, even as her spirit was gaining strength. Her three children—two daughters and a son—had begun planning her celebration of life service. In fact, they had gone so far as to buy a burial plot for her at Honey Creek Woodlands Cemetery, across from the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers.

Rob, however, refused to give up.

“I’m seeing her death two or three weeks away,” he said, “and you know, love is long suffering in more ways than one. So I’m watching Pernilla come to grips with her death. She’s coming to grips with God’s grace being sufficient, and she’s saying, ‘I’m fine no matter what.’ I was saying, ‘No, don’t think that. You’re a fighter.’ She was at peace, but for me, on Aug. 3, I didn’t think she was going to see September.” 

Hardin had no choice but to attach her one-point-at-a-time tennis approach to whatever time she had left. Soon, days turned to weeks, and by the middle of August, she realized she no longer felt much pain. “I had all this morphine to take for pain, and I never had to use it,” Hardin said. “When I told the doctor that I had no pain anymore, he told me, ‘Well, God must really be helping you.’” Sometime around September, she found something else for which she could be thankful, and it was quite unexpected.

“I went to the bathroom, and I came out and said, ‘I passed gas.’ Not to be too detailed, but up until that point, I had a full-on obstruction,” Hardin said. “Nothing had come out on either side of my intestines, so when I came out that day after passing gas, I said, ‘I think God is doing something.’” 

From there, she tried to eat and drink a little more and continued to see signs that her digestive track had reactivated. The progress was enough to keep her going. “By Thanksgiving, I was able to participate in our meal,” Hardin said. “By Christmas, I was able to stand drinking water again. Before those times, I’d lost all my muscle mass and just so much weight, but since that point until now, I’ve put on like 45 pounds.” She now measures her progress by mailboxes and golf clubs. “I started gaining strength by making trips to the mailbox,” Hardin said. “Then I’d walk to one more, then two, then three—until I was able to just keep on walking. I can walk through nine holes of golf now. At first, I couldn’t lift a bag of golf clubs, but now I can. I’m back doing pushups, dips [and] planking. My joints aren’t quite ready for weightlifting, but I’ve been doing isometric strength training.” 

Tennis was another outlet on which she relied. As Hardin continues down her recovery road, she has stayed active on the virtual recruiting trail. Yes, even as she recovers from another life-threatening encounter with ovarian cancer, she exudes excitement when discussing the latest class of players that she and her staff have assembled at Oxford College.

“I love what I do,” Hardin said. “Having the opportunity to help young people to be their best, I just love it. I’m super thankful that I continue to have the opportunity to do what I love. After all of this, I have a different perspective I can bring to my athletes. When situations get tough and stressful, I can think through what I’ve been through and say, ‘Listen, it’s just tennis. No matter how tough it gets, you still are blessed to be able to play, so don’t stress about it.’” 

Hardin maintains her trust in God’s ability to heal—so much so that she never bothered to visit the doctor for the official word that her cancer has gone into remission.

“I don’t need to have a scan to tell me I’m healed,” she said. “God gave me peace to get off the chemo. He gave me peace to get off the inhibitors. I’m gaining weight. I feel no pain. I don’t feel sick, and I’m not going to live like [I am].” 

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