Reaching the other side

Barbara Lawlor, Gilpin County.  Vince Suich, in new umpire clothes because his old uniform made him look like a sixth grader in his dad’s clothes, stood behind first base for five games on Saturday calling the plays. It rained on and off, enough to chill him through and through. At the end of the day his muscles ached and he was tired. On Sunday, he returned to the ball field to ump four more games.

 

It was the Tonya Putnam Memorial Championship Tournament at the Gilpin County Ball Field. In spite of the weather, in spite of being in pain, Vince was happy. He was there. He was alive. He was standing and walking and doing something that was part of his life.

 

The other part, the near death part, the complications from his stem cell transplant were behind him.

 

He welcomed the rain and being back on the field.

 

On Monday morning, Vince and Diane his wife talked about the nightmare they went through for the past year fighting his bone marrow cancer. Vince has always prided himself on being fit and participating in challenging activities; such as, riding a bike across country with his son. To be unable to walk across a room was the hardest pill to swallow.

 

Vince came to Gilpin County when Ohio Bell transferred him to Mountain Bell, a move he relished.
“The mountains were like a magnet to me, they sucked me in,” says Vince. It was 1978, his children were two years and six months old.

 

His employer became US West, then Quest, then Century Link. For 34 years he was the phone guy in the mountains. Vince knew just about everyone and could be there to answer a call for help.

 

“It was great. They let me take the truck home at night so I could be there. I took care of a lot of stuff, including working on the railroad track circuits. My first job was working in the I-70 Eisenhower Tunnel, driving a golf cart between the phone stations.”

 

When Vince had free time, he played softball, sometimes in Boulder, sometimes at Guercio Field in Nederland, when pick up games attracted a couple of teams and a bunch of spectators.

 

When he wasn’t playing softball, Vince was on his bike, participating in Ride the Rockies, and then his cross country trip from Anacondas, Washington to Bar Harbor, Maine. He ran three marathons. He was fit, athletic and always ready for a challenge.

In the mid-80s, when the economy was bad, Vince thought there had to be something he could do to help and approached Chuck Webb, the president of the Nederland Bank to join him in a fund-raising challenge. Chuck would run 100 miles and Vince would bike 500 miles in one week. The goal was to raise $10k to donate to the teen center, which had not yet been built, the Optimists Club, the Food Bank, the Bucket Brigade and the Nederland seniors.

 

He rode from Nederland to Granby on the first day, then to Steamboat, on to Walden, Fort Collins and Littleton, to return to Nederland.

 

“We got a Nederland softball team together and made it to the championship seven years in a row, even won the Evergreen tournament. The Stage Stop Inn sponsored us.”

 

Life was good. He and Diane were enjoying doing many things, heading off to Florida each spring to watch the Rockies spring training.

 

Then a regular PSA test showed that Vince had prostrate cancer. He went through the surgery and then radiation.

 

“I didn’t feel that bad, I worked every day, walked every Sunday with George, didn’t get mad in traffic and thanked God I was alive.”

 

Vince took on the challenge of a no white diet: no sugar, no flour, no potatoes, no rice, no bread and it worked. He stayed on the diet for five years, even lost the craving for sugar. The cancer went away and Vince retired, realizing that life was short and he had things he wanted to do, like the cross country trip with his son. He wanted to spend a month in Florida, watching spring training.

 

Just when he was ready to take on the world in 2010, he felt his heart racing one day and learned he needed heart surgery. The surgery was repeated in 2014. During the last operation, doctors found a disorder in his blood and told him to see a hematologist. He learned that often, 10-15 years after radiation, this blood disorder, a bone marrow cancer, shows up. He was told that 64 percent of the patients need to have a bone marrow transplant.

 

“They told me they didn’t want to do the transplant until the symptoms grew worse, that it was a risky procedure. Finally, I got sicker and weaker and the doctor said I should go for it, but I had to have a match consisting of 10 different markers. It was a 50/50 chance I would even find a match.”

 

It turned out that his sister was an exact match, but after seven pregnancies, she had different antigens and Vince would end up with 100 percent female DNA. The doctor told him that when the surgery was done, he would go shoe shopping a lot and would forget how to use the remote control.

His sister flew in from Maryland. Before the surgery, the doctors found a bug in Vince’s system that they had to get rid of. The bug comes from cats and is usually not a problem, but if the immune system is killed, it would be. The transplant was delayed for two weeks.

 

“I didn’t know the odds of the transplant working and I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to know how bad it was. I just wanted it done.”

 

Vince received eight days of chemo to bring his immune system to nothing to prepare the new stem cells to create a new immune system.

 

After a day of rest, the stem cells from his sister were pulled from her blood and given to Vince intravenously. Then they waited and watched the numbers rise as the cells did their job. The treatment left Vince with a mouth of sores, with thrush, with so much mucous it had to be suctioned out so he could breathe. Even a drop of water caused excruciating pain.

 

Diane describes what was happening as a group of workers have been not doing their job, so a new batch of workers is brought in and told to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Vince’s new cells were all working, even if they were all women.

 

Vince was in the hospital for 34 days, in isolation and then moved to an apartment five blocks from the hospital, where he was kept in a sterile atmosphere for the next three months. Each day there were 50 things to do to keep the apartment sterile.

 

“These were hard times,” says Diane. “He couldn’t eat. He shed skin over his whole body and lost hair.”

 

Vince says he just kept hanging in, day by day, doing what he had to do.

 

In April of 2016, he was allowed to go home, but had to report to the hospital four times a week.

 

He was beginning to feel better, began walking, thinking he was out of the woods, when his system decided it didn’t like his liver. He went into Stage 4 liver failure.

 

“This was scarier than all the rest of it,” says Diane. “He was losing a pound a day and getting weaker and weaker.”

 

Vince’s muscles began to fail him. He couldn’t get up. The high doses of prednisone were attacking his muscles. Soon he couldn’t get up. He remembers one night he was walking from the bathroom to his recliner when he collapsed and he laid there, crying, thinking, “This is it.”

 

Diane wanted to help him get up, but he said “no.” After struggling for a while, he managed to get up.

 

“That seemed to be a turning point. I slowly began to get better. The doctor told me he didn’t know how long it would take for my nerves to come back again.”

 

It still wasn’t over. The medicine he was taking induced diabetes and he began extreme stomach disorders. He would get better for a while and then get worse. He ate mostly soup. He would go to a restaurant and take a bite and couldn’t eat any more. “I just couldn’t eat. I didn’t have any saliva. The pain in my stomach was a 10, like a knife twisting in my gut.”

 

One night, Vince woke up in extreme pain and couldn’t find his medication and began crawling up the stairs to get Diane. He was returned to the hospital where it was determined he had an e coli infection from the port he had. He was put back in the hospital.

 

This was in October of last year, since then, he has been getting better all the time. He returns for once a month blood work. The doctors are keeping an eye on his liver, but his cancer in undetectable.

He has had eight bone marrow biopsies, which Vince says aren’t that bad, but Diane says they are painful to watch.

 

It has a been a year of recovery for Vince. He walked the Boulder-Boulder, a major feat, even though he had run the race a dozen times before.

 

One of his nurses wanted to write a story on him, saying that people not even as sick as he has been have given up. Vince says it is a matter of good luck and a lot of great care.

 

Vince says that during his liver failure, the doctors would assure him that they could fix it. When he began to recover they told him that he had been in a bad way. Friends visiting from Ohio said they went back to their hotel and cried, thinking they’d never see him again. At one point in the hospital, Vince stopped breathing, but came out of it on his own, thinking of the nurse who was working on him, what a beautiful lady.

 

“There is no way I would have made it without Diane. She took care of me, kept track of all my medications, of all my appointments and I followed her around like a puppy. St Luke’s Presbyterian of Denver took care of me even though I was Catholic.”

 

Vince’s friends did a lot for him, shoveling, babysitting him, anything he needed.

 

It was mandatory that Vince have 24-hour care. Throughout it all, Vince just kept putting one foot in front of the other. Now, they say, they have reached the point where they are able to plan things together. They are in a good place, every day is a gift.

 

When Vince reached the turning place on Jan. 11, he declared it his new birthday, he was a new person. They flew to Las Vegas to celebrate.

 

“Doctor has told me it is time for you to think not about surviving, but about living again. Do the things you want to do.”

 

Vince has to start all over again with his immune system, has to get all of the childhood disease shots like polio and measles.

 

The doctors told Vince that if he hadn’t gone to therapy, if he hadn’t done the work he did, he would be in a wheelchair today. He is gaining weight and even is growing muscle again. His legs are beginning to show definition.

 

“We are starting to get back to normal. I am doing a little bit of work at the town hall, the town shop and for Accounting Specialists. He has been contracted by a National Park in Alaska to get some wiring done. Next spring, they will go watch the Rockies practice for two months.

Another goal of his is to repeat the cross-country bike trip, this time taking a car, revisiting some of the places they didn’t have a chance to spend much time the first time around.

 

Vince will attend his 50th high school reunion, and they are planning to go to Casper to watch the eclipse of the sun.

 

Diane says, “Everybody’s got Something, people are going through all of this every day. Vince still gets tired but he’s feeling better all the time. One of the really good things is that food is starting to taste better.”

 

Things are getting back to normal. This past year has become a memory and the Suich’s have the rest of the summer to do all the things they enjoy, which have become even more precious to both of them, as they look at life from the other side.

 

 

(Originally published in the August 3, 2017 print edition of The Mountain-Ear.)

Barbara Lawlor

Barbara is a reporter for The Mountain-Ear.