After 60 years, I Came to Really Know My Dad On November 20, 2012

John “Tom” Shestokas

I know every guy’s Dad is special, and of course, I’ve known my Dad all my life and have always loved him.  Dad’s 85 and in a single day, at 60 years old,  I came to know he has qualities I have never really understood or appreciated.

I had always known he had been an All American football player in college 67 years ago.  It was part of family history, but of course before my time, so I can’t say I ever thought about that deeply or much considered the meaning of that achievement.  At the most difficult of times I was blessed to be given a deeper understanding of my Dad.  I finally met the football player of 67 years ago.  I saw inside the soul of a champion.

From Broken Leg To Brain Tumor To Chemo

To Rehab To a Day at Home

On May 11th Dad broke his right leg, which led to a titanium rod insertion.  The broken leg also led to an MRI, which led to suspicion of a tumor on June 7th, a brain biopsy on June 9th, which led to confirmation of a central nervous system lymphoma on June 17th, which led to 8 chemo treatments in June & July, which led to rehab August, September & October.  Follow up brain scans in late September had shown great success in tumor reduction from the chemo. He finally got home on Halloween. It was for a single day.

Renewed Symptoms 

and Return to Hospital

He was back in the hospital November 1st.  Symptoms aroused suspicions that despite the chemo’s apparent success the tumor had resumed its growth.  I flew up to Chicago from Florida as Dad began radiation treatments.  On the third day of radiation he experienced significant weakness, which doctors thought was an adverse reaction to the radiation.

There was, however, something else going on.  Dad’s a tough guy and through the last six months when asked how he felt, he would always say great, when it was obviously not true.  On the third day of radiation, just moving the sheet on the hospital bed caused a pained look on his face, and the source of pain was his left knee, which was beginning to swell.

Treatment for Knee Pain but No Relief 

An orthopedic consult led to a cortisone/Novocain shot in the left knee.  He got no relief, though this was not evident by his directly expressing continued pain. Any movement, however slight, of the bed, of the sheet and it became apparent there was excruciating pain emanating from his knee.  A pained look, a low muffled moan were the signs, though Dad would not directly verbalize the extent of his distress.

There is more to this story, but on Wednesday, November 14, his temperature rose to 103 and his blood pressure dropped precipitously.  The oncologist still believed it was the tumor (when you show a guy with a hammer a problem, he always thinks the solution is nails), despite insistence that the problem is the left knee.  At this point, Dad had been barely able to move for 10 days, and his rehab from the original broken right leg and rounds of chemo was far from complete.  He was physically drained from his six month ordeal.

Source of Problem: Knee Infection Caused by Serratia Marcescens

At about 9:45, while Dad’s fever is raging and the blood pressure dropping to dangerous levels, finally, an orthopedic surgeon (at the family’s insistence) came and aspirated fluid from Dad’s knee.  You could see the vial fill with pus, and hear audible gasps from the other personnel in the room as I held Dad’s hand while the needle was in his knee.  The knee was septic.

The next day, November 15th, after six months of broken leg rehab and difficult cancer treatment, (and the night before in ICU due to the fever and blood pressure) Dad had knee surgery to clean out the infection, which blood cultures now show was not only in his knee, but was systemic.

The surgery was on Thursday.  He spent the next three days in ICU.  During those three days, the fluid from his knee was cultured for bacteria, and the source of the sepsis was identified as serratia marcescens, a nosocomial infection. (He began receiving IV antibiotics for the now identified bacteria, potentially treatable with several antibiotics, but there are also antibiotic resistant strains. )

Transferred from ICU to Medical Oncology Floor

Agrees to Battle Infection and Cancer

On Monday, November 19th, after the post operative days in ICU Dad moved to the oncology floor.  The surgical pressure dressing came off, but Dad still had great pain.  That evening, we watched the Bears and had a long talk about the recent turn of events.   We talked about the infection, the ordeal of the past six months and the upcoming plan for treatment.

He agreed to beat back this infection that was the source of such anguish, and when that was done, take another shot at radiation, another shot at the cancer. This talk was a preview of what was to come.

The Plan in Place

The Soul of a Champion Shows Itself

Super DadOn Tuesday, November 20th,  for the first time since November 7th, Dad’s leg could be touched without causing him anguish, still discomfort, but not anguish.

Through this ordeal, much of Dad’s physical strength has left him, and all the treatments have had their own side effects, but now the knee was less tender, and the gauze and ace bandage removed.  His left leg still had remnants of gauze in kind of a filmy coating on it, but since it could be touched, I asked if I could clean that up a bit.  He nodded assent.

I wiped off the top of his leg on the thigh above and calf below the 2 inch incision from the surgery.  As I did, I could tell there was more of the filmy gauze remnant underneath.  I asked if I could lift his leg to clean off underneath.  He again nodded assent (his voice is weak from the ordeal).

I gingerly lifted the left leg to get at the back side of the calf.  Dad grimaced a bit, and grasped the bedside.  I looked at him, and asked with my eyes if I should continue.  He nodded yes.

Then he said: “Higher”.  I looked at him incredulously, and he repeated the order. (I had been advised by the doctors earlier that the stitches were not to be a reason to restrict movement).  I lifted the leg an inch or two more.  I could feel his effort to assist, and he grabbed the bedside tighter, looked at me and said: “More”.

The leg went higher, and now it bent at the knee (which has severe arthritis and is the source of pain when not infected or wounded by recent surgery).  He grimaced and grit his teeth.  His grip on the mattress tightened.  He let out a groan, not a groan of pain, but rather the groan of a champion on a mission, like an Olympic weight lifter trying to lift the extra pound.

Now the still swollen, stitched up leg was bent with the knee approaching his chest.  I saw the grimace and heard the groan and looked at him, again asking with my eyes how to proceed.  He gave me a yes nod, and we moved the leg up more, he let out a deep breath, and I took that as a sign to lower his leg.

I gently got his leg down on the pillow.  Dad’s next word to me was:  “Again”.

We did it five more times, and then I asked about the right leg, the one with the rod in it that had been broken in May. He said: “Go for it.”

It was the same ordeal, the same determined look, the same grunt of effort, with the same result, the right leg lifting and bending and nearly up to his chest.  He sent me back to the left leg.  We began alternating from left leg to right leg in sets of ten lifts.

On the third set, I interrupted to get myself a drink of water (Dad’s a big guy; I was getting a work out as well).  Somehow his voice was now stronger.  He commanded: “What are you doing? Don’t stop now!”

I put aside my thoughts of taking a break, and we did two more sets of ten on each side.  He grimaced and groaned through those next forty leg lifts, but was determined to work on restoring strength to those legs.  He wants to get out of bed on his own. He told me he wants to walk out of the hospital. Dad’s commitment to battle the night before during the Bears game came from the depth of his soul.

I Met The All American Football Player

That is My Dad


Dad football from FBI have known my Dad to be a persistent individual.  His persistence has always been quiet and gentle for a big guy with a football and naval background.  He’s worked hard, but always without fanfare.  On this day, I saw fortitude, grit and determination that I had not truly appreciated in the man I have loved my whole life.  Today, I met the All American football player of 67 years ago. I came to know the depth of his inner strength, and if possible came to love him even more.


For Further Reading



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