Monday, December 12, 2011
Diane's Diary by Diane Mueller
“Home for the Holidays” is a phrase that so many people embrace and is a phrase that can take on many different meanings for so many families. I’m sure over time, that phrase will take on many different meanings in my own life, but for now, I’d like to share an inspiring story with you that has changed the way I view the holidays. This is the story of a wonderful young man that I am proud to call my nephew and my godson, Ray Ort.
I was very proud of Ray when he chose to enlist in the United States Navy in 2007. He chose the Navy over the other branches of the military, because he had a dream becoming a member of the elite team of Navy SEALs. This is a very lofty goal, as many candidates begin the training process, but very few complete the training. Candidates for the Navy SEALs program are put through some of the most mentally challenging and physically demanding training in the world. Navy SEALs work in small teams and perform some of the most dangerous missions to ensure national security. So as you can imagine, and rightfully so, Navy SEALs are among the most highly skilled and most respected individuals within the armed forces. Given the prestige of these individuals, what red-blooded young man wouldn’t want to be on this team? Ray was hooked. He was all-in and ready to begin this rigorous training.
The year was now 2009 and Ray was busily mastering the steps necessary to become a SEAL. He had already completed all of the submarine requirements and was keeping his fitness at a peak level, so he would be ready to go to Navy dive school. His lifestyle was pretty routine for a 20 year-old in the military; his days were mainly filled with physical fitness, in addition to his daily work within the Navy. He was also preparing himself for the next step in the SEAL program, Explosive Ordinance Disposal. Things were going well for Ray, as his dreams were slowly becoming reality. With entry into dive school on the horizon, Ray underwent a battery of tests and more comprehensive physical screenings than he had been through previously, but that wasn’t of any concern to Ray, as far as he or anyone knew, he was the picture of perfect health.
On August 25th, 2009, Ray received the most devastating news of his young life. The Naval medical team notified him that the tests reflected a positive diagnosis of Hodgkin Lymphoma, a form of cancer that originates from the white blood cells. Rather than moving forward in the SEAL program, his future now was to consist of chemotherapy and many other cancer treatments. His dream had been crushed in a moment’s notice. Naturally, Ray became very depressed. He couldn’t stand to think about or hear about cancer. His bright future suddenly looked very bleak and he couldn’t understand why this was happening to him. The shock was almost unbearable. Why had God chosen to infect him with this terrible disease? It just didn’t make sense. He was a mild mannered, polite young man, living an honorable life, serving his country. Why was the future he dreamed of being taken away from him? Was he going to die in the prime of his life? These were the thoughts that haunted him and drove him to seclude himself from everything and everyone. Well, almost everyone, that is. Thankfully he had his loving fiancée, Brittny, with him. Brittny was more than just his girlfriend, she was his best friend and his soul mate, and it was her love and support that helped Ray to slowly come out of his depression. Within a week of his diagnosis, Ray was ready to begin fighting this disease that threatened to kill him. He decided the best way to defeat this enemy was to be proactive by learning as much about the disease as he could. Drawing on the mental strength that he had learned in the Navy, Ray knew he had the best odds of overcoming this challenge by maintaining his physical fitness and staying positive. He continued to work at his job in the Navy as much as he could around his chemotherapy sessions. He was determined to keep his life as upbeat and normal as he could while he fought his cancer. In September, the cancer treatments began with a treatment called, ABVD.
ABVD is the primary and initial chemotherapy regimen used in the treatment of Hodgkin Lymphoma. Each cycle consists of two doses of chemotherapy, one dose on day one and the other dose generally administered on day 15 of the cycle. Ray went through 8 cycles of ABVD, but his cancer persisted. In July of 2010, he underwent two cycles of another treatment called ICE. ICE is a combination regimen of chemotherapy, which is used when the disease becomes progressive or recurrent, when the ABVD has proven to be ineffective. Rays cancer had progressed from stage I to stage III.
Brittny remained Ray’s primary support throughout all the cancer treatments he had endured at the Naval Medical Hospital. She was his rock and his one true love. Ray knew this was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with and to create a family with. While still undergoing treatments, they decided to plan their wedding. They chose a wedding date of August 21st, 2010. As they continued to plan for their future, they discovered that this was also a positive outlet for their energies and emotions. After all, this disease affected more than just Ray. This was emotionally challenging for Brittny too, who had to watch the love of her life struggle and suffer through cancer treatments. All of this was so much for the young lovers to endure, but through it all, it helped make them stronger and more loving as a couple. Ray and Brittny knew, more than most couples, how short life could threaten to be.
With Ray’s cancer spreading and not responding to the aggressive treatments they were administering, his doctor proposed a stem cell transplant. This was a risky procedure, but it was the procedure that gave him the best chance at curing his cancer. Ray and Brittny were completely onboard with the stem cell transplant. They were anxious for this nightmare to be over so they could move on with their lives as husband and wife. Ray requested to come home to Wisconsin to have the stem cell transplant, with the hopes that his family would be able to help support him through this difficult process. The Navy obliged and on August 5th, Ray was transferred to the care of UW Madison Hospital. The initial preparations for the transplant were delayed, however, as Ray and Brittny had a very important event scheduled on August 21st; their wedding. It was important to them for Ray to be strong enough to be able to enjoy the happiest day of his life, the day his best friend would become his wife. UW hospital granted their request and gave them their blessing for a happy union on Saturday, but wanted Ray back in Madison on Monday to begin the preparations for the transplant.
The best chance for the procedure to be successful was for Ray to be his own donor for the stem cells. The process begins with a small dose of chemotherapy to prepare his body for a stem cell harvest. Eight days later, the doctors attempted to harvest his stem cells. The harvest was successful, but they weren’t able to collect enough stem cells, so they would need to do the procedure again. They would continue to do the procedure until enough stem cells were collected to complete the transplant. With each harvest, they harvested fewer and fewer stem cells. The doctors completed a total of five stem cell harvests by November 17th and they still hadn’t collected enough to complete the transplant, so they administered a medication to try to make his stem cells more productive. They also began looking for a donor for him, because time was of the essence to get the transplant completed. Fortunately, the doctors were able to harvest enough of Ray’s stem cells to complete the procedure and the date of Tuesday, December 7th was set as the official transplant date. Ray needed to report to the hospital the day before, however, to prepare his body for the transplant.
Basically what happens during the transplant is this: large doses of chemotherapy is administered to the patient to kill all the cancer cells and white blood cells in the body, then the harvested stem cells are transplanted into the patient’s bone marrow, and the waiting game begins for those stem cells to regenerate themselves to a satisfactory level of white blood cells. The patient is in a very vulnerable state at this time, as they have zero immune system while they wait for the body to begin healing itself, so special precautions must be observed whenever contact with the patient is made. All visitors and medical staff must sanitize their hands before entering the patient’s room, the patient can only eat foods that are fully cooked, the patient can’t have any plants in the room as they may have bacteria on them, the patient must wear a protective mask over their nose and mouth whenever they leave their room, as their room is a germ-free zone due to special air cleaning filtration systems used for ventilation.
The stem cell transplant was an awful procedure for Ray to endure and it was difficult to watch him go through it. He was in a great deal of pain and his level of discomfort continued to increase before it went down. Eventually he was placed on a morphine drip and spent the majority of his days under sedation as the pain was too great to bear. His mouth was filled with sores and his tongue was so swollen he could barely swallow. He was unable to eat and would choke while trying to swallow a mouthful of water, so he needed to be fed intravenously. Brittny stayed by his side this entire time. She slept on a tiny mattress wedged between his bed and the wall. She lived in his room with him and rarely left on her own. As his aunt, I did as much to help keep him comfortable as I could, bringing him fuzzy blankets to make him feel cozy, bringing him clothes to keep him comfortable, and anything else we could think of to make him feel more at home. The one thing that weighed heavily on both of them was Christmas. Ray and Brittny both loved Christmas. They loved everything about it; the decorations, the music, the Christmas cartoons and just the whole spirit of the holiday. I brought a few decorations in for them to hang around their room, a mini-stereo so they could listen to music and some holiday cartoons to help brighten their spirits. But something still seemed to be missing. Even though they had decorations and stockings hanging on the wall, they were still missing a Christmas tree. I struggled to figure think of a solution, as they weren’t allowed to have a real tree or plant in the room because of the bacteria, when it dawned on me. When my grandmother died many years ago, the one thing I kept as a memorial of her was a ceramic Christmas tree that she always had setting out on the desk in the family room. I was fascinated with this tree as child, so it seemed like a logical choice for me to keep. I brought in that tree on my next visit and set it up in a corner so they could enjoy it and have their own little holiday tree. It seemed as though I was destined to have that tree. What makes it additionally special was that grandma was able to help brighten their gloomy little room and provide them a little holiday peace. That ceramic tree will always hold an extra special place in my heart now.
As the days passed by, Ray slowly began to regenerate his white blood cells. As those counts began to rise, his pain level began to decrease. Ray was a gentleman through this entire procedure. Even on his worst days, he was gracious and thankful for every visitor and for every item brought to make him more comfortable. It brought tears of pride to my eyes as I sat there watching him lie in his bed in agony, yet when the nursing staff or doctors from the hospital entered his room, he had perfect manners and was thankful for everything they did to help make him as comfortable as possible. It’s one thing to be polite during your regular life, but it’s completely another thing to maintain those same mannerisms when you are in agonizing pain and at the lowest point in your life. Everyone that met Ray while he was in the hospital was shocked when they learned he was only 21 years old. The nursing staff continually said he was extremely mature and pleasant for his age. I never tired of hearing that. It made my heart smile every time someone complimented me about his mannerisms.
From the moment Ray was admitted to the hospital, his goal was to be home before Christmas. He couldn’t bear the thought of spending Christmas in his dreary hospital room. As I watched him slowly deteriorating, I remember thinking, there was no way he would be well enough to come home in time. After all, Christmas was only 18 days from the date of his original admittance and going through that entire procedure within 18 days seemed like he would need a miracle. But then again, Christmas is the time for miracles and God was listening. God knew Ray wasn’t asking for much. He went through a year of chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant with more courage than anyone I have ever known. He wasn’t looking for sympathy or anyone to blame. He faced this disease head-on, like a man. His dream of becoming a SEAL had vanished and still, he wasn’t bitter. Even when the majority of his family failed to support him, or visit him, while he was in the hospital, he wasn’t angry. Ray is a simple, loving and forgiving man. He doesn’t for ask much in life, just to be loved. And Ray didn’t ask much from God while he was suffering in the hospital, only that he be well enough to come home in time to spend Christmas with his new bride who never left his side. Ray’s Christmas wish was granted. He recovered and was released from the hospital on December 20th. He made it home in plenty of time for Christmas. Thankfully, Ray and Brittny were able to share the blessing of life together on Christmas Day. This will always be a Christmas miracle for our family.
Ray continued to recover at home, taking precautions to stay well rested and to prevent illness. He was still at high-risk while at home due to his decreased immune system, so he continued to take immune deficiency drugs to help keep him healthy. On April 1st, 2011, three and a half months after the procedure, Ray was well enough to go back to the Navy on limited duty, with restrictions on his work abilities. Because he still had signs of cancer, he was placed in a Medical Advisement Board, which is a process where the military determines if he is fit to continue serving. The process that can take 6 months to a year to complete. Due to the length of time Ray was under medical treatment, he was found unfit to continue serving in the Navy and was medically retired. On October 24th, Ray was officially out of the Navy and on his way home to begin the next chapter in his life.
Now that Ray is home from the military, his goal is to readjust to life as a civilian and to get back into excellent physical condition. He would like to get back into mixed martial arts fighting. He had just begun training for MMA when he was diagnosed with cancer, so that had been put on the backburner. He is also planning to go back to school for mechanics, as he would love to open his own shop one day. In the meantime, he is enjoying life and being healthy. His outlook on life is simple: Enjoy every day of life and take nothing for granted. Life is filled with opportunities that anyone can achieve and never let anything stand in the way of your dreams. If you have a passion within you, make it happen. And don’t forget to stop and help someone else in need along the way. Your life will be more fulfilled for it.
Ray would like to thank the people who were supportive of him and helped him through his cancer: beginning with his wonderful wife, Brittny Ort, his family- especially his aunt Diane Mueller, his chain of command and brothers in the Navy: Christopher Brant, Cory Hottinger, Devin Englehart, Philip Henson, Richard Orbek, Kenny Wheeler and Kollin Galliano.
I would like to thank The United States Navy for discovering this terrible disease and for providing Ray the excellent medical attention that he needed. And thank you to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital for the excellent care they provided Ray and for performing his life saving stem cell transplant. UW Hospital is a state of the art facility and the medical staff is all top-notch. Everyone was wonderful there, from the doctors to the nursing staff and aides. Thank you for saving my nephew’s life. My family will always owe a debt of gratitude for allowing him to continue to live in our lives.
As always, thank you to my sponsors: 911Strong.com and Big Rig Supplements for your continued support of me personal and my bodybuilding goals. You have opened doors for me that I never dreamed possible. And thank you to my mentor and coach, Jennifer Abrams (www.jenniferabrams.net) for your guidance and support, and for making me believe that even the sky is NOT the limit. And a special thank you to my friends at Steeltribe Muscle Gear Apparel. The Tribe is some most genuine and inspirational people I’ve had the privilege of meeting in the fitness industry.