The Fight of My Life

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| This is the 417th story of Our Life Logs |


I lay in the hospital bed, pain racking my body as chemicals and super-science ran through my blood. I was like Captain America, I was like the Incredible Hulk, but unlike my childhood heroes, I wasn’t going to come out the other side with super-powers. I was just hoping I’d make it out with my life.

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I was born the fourth of nine children in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1966. I had a pretty typical childhood full of days of running around with my siblings and playing sports year-round like football, basketball, and baseball. I especially loved baseball and my hometown Royals. If I wasn’t outside playing, I was inside reading comic books. Batman and Robin and the Incredible Hulk were just as much a part of my life as George Brett and Cookie Rojas. I dreamed of helping people like the heroes of my comic books someday.

When it came time to decide what to do with my life after graduating high school in 1984, I juggled a few routes including computer science and modeling, but it wasn’t until I became a dietary aide in the medical field that I felt I’d found my calling—my chance to help and save people.

In between working in the medical field, I went in and out of college a few dozen times (life always seemed to get in the way), until I finally obtained multiple degrees and certifications including an associate’s in business administration and another for physical therapy to become a rehab tech in PTA. In the middle of obtaining all this knowledge, I started to build my personal life. By this time, I had a family with four children and my medical career was taking off. After years of hard work, I had a distinct plan for my life, and I was thrilled to see it flourish.

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By 2016, I had been working in the medical field for over 10 years, was happily married, and happily spent my free time with my children and my grandkids. And I wasn’t even 50 yet! Life was great—from an outsider’s perspective. Inside, I was battling unexplained agonizing pain in my back.  At first, I figured the pain was just from my job because I did a lot of bending and lifting to help patients on and off the table and the like. But just to be safe, I went to the doctor to check it out.

After an MRI and examination, I was prescribed some meds, and instructed to go to both physical and occupational therapy. I thought that’d be the end of it. But as the days passed, the meds weren’t working and the pain wasn’t leaving. It got to a point that it hurt too much to even follow the therapy instructions.

I went back to the doctor, who tried changing up the medication and tried sending me to a chiropractor, but the medication made me feel worse, and I couldn’t bear the pain from the chiropractor visits. Nothing seemed to be helping. Though, my doctor cautioned patience that sometimes it takes a while for certain medications to really kick in.

A month passed with taking the unhelpful prescribed medication when whatever was going on hit a breaking point. I was walking out of the bathroom one day when all of a sudden, it felt like I was having a heart attack. My hand flew to my pounding chest as the world around me became fuzzy, and I passed out, collapsing to the floor. My wife, frantic, called 911, but my brothers who had been called over ultimately decided to rush me to the ER themselves.

I woke up in a hospital bed, surrounded by barren white walls, and beeping sounds. I was told that my blood pressure had spiked so high that I passed out. The doctors began running test after test to determine what had caused the episode. The next 90 minutes were spent in silent anticipation until a nurse finally told me they were going to be admitting me. I asked her why, but she just shook her head and left me to ponder alone.

The next morning, I watched as four or five cancer doctors filed in around me, like there was an Oncology conference scheduled around my bed. It was jarring to be on the other side of the hospital room, to be the one getting observed. It was unsettling. That’s when I started to realize something was seriously wrong.

“Multiple Myeloma,” “cancer poisoning the blood,” “poisoning the bones.” The words of this impromptu Oncology conference at my bedside rang hollow in my ears. They couldn’t penetrate to my reality because it seemed so impossible. Cancer? How? I had always been healthy. This couldn’t be right. Cancer. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t take drugs except what was prescribed by a doctor. Cancer. These doctors were clearly confused. They were talking about someone else, a different David Rolf, because this David Rolf was a perfectly healthy middle-aged man, ready for the decades to come. It just couldn’t be real. I did not want to accept their treacherous lies.

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Things seemed to move at hyper speed from that meeting like a movie montage, everything just blurring together. More doctors, more tests, social workers; all of them trying to give me the plan, all the while I was feeling sicker and sicker; all of it passing by without making an impact.

Six days later, I found myself back home, feeling worse than when I had entered the hospital and unsure of how or when I was supposed to start feeling better. This was the start of my trial by medicine. I would be home, I would be back at the hospital. They would give me one medication just as ineffective as the one they were replacing. I was like a boomerang being thrown home only to bounce back to the hospital when I had a problem. Home. Hospital. Home. Hospital. And in between it all, I was worsening each day— the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. I became stricken with 10 to 20 minutes of spasms that would make me collapse to the floor sobbing. The slightest movement sent pain shooting through my body.

They tried radiation, but it did a poor job of killing the cancer. I had to be given a caregiver and nurse to help me do daily tasks because I was so feeble from the cancer degrading my bones. My appetite disappeared, food began to taste and smell awful to me so they began feeding me through an IV. I was on 12 different medications, and my bones eventually became so brittle that I could barely stand. I was too weak to stand up and use the bathroom. My fingers weren’t even strong enough to hold a measly glass of water. My friends and family encouraged me to stay positive but how could I when I wasn’t even me anymore? I was no longer the man who saved people but the man who needed to be saved.

David Rolf-51 years old
During my treatment, 2017.

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I would love to be able to tell you that I went through this whole ordeal with grace and humor, that I was a shining beacon in the darkness spreading joy to others even in the midst of my suffering, but that would be a lie. The truth is, I was depressed and resentful and angry. I was left to sit and stew in my own emotions, drowning in their depths like a swimmer lost at sea. It was a dark time and the negativity flowed through me like a drug. I snapped at people, I shouted and yelled, I was recalcitrant and obstinate. I made the lives of those around me harder, from my family trying to be there for me to the medical professionals trying to help me.

I had never been on this side before, to be the patient, not the caregiver, the medical professional. It always seemed so easy, the things we asked patients to do. I could never understand why they would refuse to do simple things, especially as we were only trying to make them well again. But now I understood. Now I got it. When I was strung out on meds, wrung out from lack of sleep, test after test, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel except the oncoming train of my demise, I stopped cooperating. Anyone would. When you lose all control over every aspect of your life, no longer able to eat, no longer able to control your bowels, no longer able to do anything, it’s understandable why you’d look for something, just one thing, that you can control.

“Come on, David. Let’s get in the wheelchair and go get the scan.”

“No.”

“Come on, David. Roll over so I can get some blood.”

“No.”

“Come on, David. Help me get you on to the table.”

“No.”

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Despite my obstinacy, my doctors pressed on. What they tried next sounded like the kind of super-science I’d only read about in comics: Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. The goal was to take the healthy stem cells from other parts of my body to snuff out the broken ones. The procedure was the hardest one yet and completely wiped my immune system. But I wasn’t done yet. Chemotherapy followed behind and because of my weak fragile immune system, I was placed in isolation. They didn’t want to risk me getting an infection that my body could no longer fight. I was so weak that I couldn’t even flush the toilet after using the restroom.

When this procedure didn’t alleviate my ever-worsening symptoms, my doctors started to wear grave expressions and say things like, “Damn it, you’re too young to die.” They began calling my family in. It is a grim feeling to know you’re on your deathbed, to know that the end is at hand and you can do nothing to stop it. I was just as powerless to escape the cold embrace of death as the dinosaurs as they waited for the asteroid to slam into Earth. All I could do was put myself into God’s hands, because in the end I believe God is the only one who can give life.

And He decided to give me a little more life.

Just as it looked like I was at the end, my body began to recover. They say sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. The new stem cells just needed some time to take effect. The cancer retreated, my immune system began to return. Normal was still so far away like a myth told by drunken sailors to naïve children, but it was a start.

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As my condition improved, my skin began to shed like I was being completely reborn. The doctors assured me this was normal. How appropriate, I thought. Not only did I have new life, with my reborn skin, but just like a child, I had to learn how to do almost everything all over again. Because of my nerve damage, I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn how to comb my own hair again. Even something as simple as feeding myself or using the bathroom on my own required retraining. I won’t lie and say that wasn’t frustrating at first, but it was overpowered by the sheer joy that I was finally gaining control of my life and body once more.

It wasn’t until the start of 2018 that I started to feel myself again, that I could start to reclaim my old life and go back to work part-time. As I started to pick up the pieces of my life, trying to reassemble them into the comforting shape that life had been before the illness, the most extraordinary thing began to happen. People started coming up to me, people who knew my story, co-workers, fellow church goers, friends and acquaintances. They told me that I inspired them, that when they were dark and down, they thought about me and what I went through, and they’d remind themselves that if I can make it, that if I can survive, then anything is possible and they can’t give up hope.

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My badge from work at the medical center.

Part of me feels unworthy of their praise. I know the doubts and anger and despair that feast in my heart. I know I did nothing myself; it was all God working through the doctors and the medicine. But I am honored and proud if my suffering, trials and tribulations can help others live a better life. And now that I was a patient and understand the trials of sickness, I have become a better medic. I no longer just save people through my work, I save others by inspiring them with my story.

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Seeing the reactions to my recovery made me realize something important. Before my diagnosis, I had an idea of how my life would go. I assumed that tomorrow was always going to be there. After seeing death linger in my hospital room and be able to cast it away, I’ve learned to stop taking life for granted. Today, I treasure everything in everyday, from the giggle of a grandchild to the sun shining on the water because you never know if it will be there tomorrow. Don’t let life’s clouds stop the rays of this world’s beauty from shining on you. I just thank God every day that I can still be here, enjoying the small things.

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This is the story of David Rolf

David currently resides in Kansas City, Missouri, where he works part-time at a hospital and runs his own business of car auctions. He is also pursuing his Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration. All his life, David was healthy and happy, had a consistent career going for him, and had plans for the next few decades to come. Then a cancer diagnosis shattered all he had known and tomorrow was no longer promised. Through the many procedures to try to rid him of his cancer, David realized the importance of being grateful for what you have now because something could happen and take it all away. In his free time, David loves to exercise, ride his bike, watch movies, or catch a Royals baseball game. David also enjoys reading and hopes to travel as he continues to grow stronger and healthier.

David Rolf-50 years old
David, 2016.

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This story first touched our hearts on September 16, 2019.

| Writer: Adam Savage | Editor: Kristen Petronio |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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