The afternoon Cody and Abby Bly were married in Fort Worth, Cody spilled a cold brew on Abby’s wedding dress. They’d been cajoled by their best friends, a photographer pair who set them up on a blind bowling date in January 2020, to take pre-ceremony photos at Roots Coffeehouse when the offense occurred.
Abby laughed. She was glad she hadn’t done it.
Cody felt terrible. He grabbed an elderly Tide pen from his backpack, knowing it would be a miracle if it worked, and it did. When Abby walked down the aisle minutes later, no one could see the stain.
The sweet normalcy of that day in December 2021, when the only thing to worry over was spilt coffee on a white dress, belied the difficult journey the couple had endured in the preceding months. Their story begins the week of Valentine’s Day in 2021, when amid a pandemic and a winter storm, an unknown and impending hardship would start to somehow — miraculously? — work itself out.
When the winter storm disrupted flights across Texas, Cody was visiting Abby in Rhode Island. He’d planned to leave Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, but his flight was canceled.
Abby had been ready for quiet — it had been a long visit, and she needed a nap. She stretched out on her family’s living room couch. Cody fished his Butterfly, a portable ultrasound device, from his backpack.
As a second-year medical student at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Worth, Cody had been swept up in the possibilities of ultrasound technology. His professor in the rural medicine program, Dr. John Gibson, had used a technique called point-of-care ultrasound, which enables providers to diagnose problems with a patient regardless of setting, in his medical mission work in Thailand. Cody aspired to do something similar. He’d competed for and earned a spot as a teaching assistant with Gibson, which meant Cody helped train first-year students in ultrasound medicine. He’d purchased his own Butterfly to practice — on anyone and everyone.
Abby’s dad, who’d recently experienced an enlarged aorta, the central artery that carries blood from the heart to other parts of the body, agreed to be inspected. The process required a lifted shirt and scanning gel. Images from the probe transmitted to Cody’s smartphone in real time.
As Cody wrapped up with Abby’s dad, Abby’s mom suggested he scan Abby too. Abby disagreed; she was trying to nap, after all. If Cody could do it with the least bit of effort on her part, then fine. He’d scan her thyroid, he told her. In the front of her neck. She wouldn’t even need to raise her shirt.
He touched the probe to her neck, eyeing his smartphone. “What am I seeing?” he thought to himself.
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped organ above the collarbone that regulates metabolism. About the size of a plum, the thyroid comprises two lobes that wrap around the trachea. On an ultrasound, a healthy thyroid looks smooth and monochrome.
Several thyroid cancers exist, and, according to the Mayo Clinic, seem to be increasing in prevalence. Women tend to develop thyroid cancer more often than men, and the most common is papillary, which makes up about 80% of thyroid cancers. If diagnosed early enough, it usually isn’t fatal.
The right lobe of Abby’s thyroid was dimpled with nodules. One large mass interrupted the left. Both lobes were speckled with white.
Cody had been studying cancer markers in class; pearls from his professors crowded his mind.
“What do you see?” Abby asked. The probe felt cold and gentle on her skin.
Cody was questioning himself. He probably didn’t know what he was doing.
“Let me just talk to Dr. Gibson,” Cody told her. He described what he had seen, and promised to connect with his professor the next day.
“I have cancer,” Abby remembers thinking. Cody was acting too formally for it to be anything else.
Dr. John Gibson moved to Fort Worth in 2008. As a physician at JPS Health Network, he helped create an ultrasound training program within the hospital district for family medicine residents. He did the same thing when he became the director of the rural medicine program at the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Gibson had also trained other physicians to use the Butterfly, an ultrasound probe with the look and feel of a sleek remote control, while traveling through Thailand and Greece. And, when the pandemic began, more and more providers wanted to know about the technology. Gibson can identify a positive COVID-19 patient simply by scanning their lungs.
He’s “very evangelical” about the power of the ultrasound.
An imaging method that uses sound-waves to examine the body in real time, the technology allows providers to differentiate between organs and tendons and joints and muscles with no harm to the patient. It’s less expensive than an MRI, gentle enough to use on a fetus and, these days, portable enough to carry in a pocket.
The day after Cody scanned Abby’s neck, he scanned it again — this time alongside Gibson, who was in Fort Worth. The Butterfly’s teleguidance system allowed the professor and student to see Abby’s thyroid images simultaneously, nearly 2,000 miles apart. Gibson’s analysis confirmed Cody’s suspicions: It looked like cancer, one that had probably grown during the extended period between Abby’s annual wellness checks, which had been interrupted by the pandemic.
The next weeks passed in a maelstrom of medical appointments, including a biopsy that confirmed papillary thyroid cancer, and a surgery that removed Abby’s entire thyroid and more than 10 lymph nodes. Between the biopsy and the surgery, Cody managed to propose — taking Abby, a self-described snoop, wholly by surprise. She’d been expecting a proposal in June, during a mission trip the two were taking to Guatemala. This was April, at Martha’s Vineyard, on a trip with the photographer friends who’d set them up in the first place.
Shook, Abby told Cody no — but recanted moments later. “I was in complete disbelief,” she said, “to the point I ruined my moment.”
In their retelling, Abby and Cody punctuate the story with laughter. Their relationship is sweet yet grounded, as wonderful and casual and tender as a bride and groom walking into a coffee shop on a Saturday afternoon. The proposal, including her initial rejection, simply felt “like us,” Abby said.
They’re happy to recount the miracles within their story. If not for the pandemic, Cody might not have been able to complete his schoolwork from Rhode Island. If not for the winter storm, Cody wouldn’t have missed his flight. If not for his profession, Cody wouldn’t have packed an ultrasound. Abby’s surgeon told her that her cancer had started growing onto her trachea; if she hadn’t found it when she did, it would’ve turned to stage 4 cancer.
“It felt orchestrated,” Abby said. “Even more evidence of God for us,” Cody added.
Throughout the journey, Abby said, she felt a “strange amount of peace.” And in January, she received more good news: The cancer hasn’t metastasized. She needs one, maybe two radiation treatments. After that, she should be good to go.
The future — like her wedding dress — remains unsullied, and they count it a blessing.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better wedding,” Cody said. “Couldn’t have asked for a better wife.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.