The primary trace I ought to have gotten that the solar may kill me got here 40 years in the past on the flank of Mount Whitney. My brother Bob and I had climbed a 2,000-foot snow subject to achieve 13,645-foot Path Crest junction, perched on the foot of Whitney’s 14,505-foot summit.
“Your face is so crimson, you seem like a boiled lobster,” Bob mentioned as we completed the climb.
“The solar mirrored off the snowfield and gave you a double dose,” mentioned my outdated pal, Jeffrey Patty, a wilderness photographer and a accomplice throughout 25 years and 10,000 miles of climbing, tenting and fishing.
On their first expedition on the John Muir Path, a three-week trek from Mount Whitney to Yosemite Valley in 1983, brothers Tom (foreground) and Bob Stienstra look as in the event that they is perhaps floating over the path at a 12,000-foot elevation north of Mount Whitney. Pictures: Courtesy Jeffrey Patty
Again within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, few of us frightened about solar publicity. Some younger folks would coat themselves with child oil and lay out tanning for hours. Within the excessive nation, or on the bay or ocean, few utilized sunscreen.
Immediately, we all know long-term solar publicity may cause melanoma, or pores and skin most cancers, which might metastasize, invading important organs and even your mind.
It’s a lesson that at 68, after a lifetime as an outdoor author, I’ve realized the arduous approach.
In August 2021, after an formidable few days of climbing, biking and mountaineering with my spouse Denese, I developed a persistent cough. Inside a number of weeks, a chest X-ray had revealed a sequence of tumors in my lungs. Two weeks later, Stanford Medical Middle radiologists discovered extra tumors in my mind and all through a lot of my physique.
Over the subsequent six months, Stanford Professor of Neurosurgery Dr. Steven Chang, and a staff of 15 specialists would full 4 craniotomies to take away tumors in my mind, arrange a blood drain in my head, take away extra fluids, and carry out CyberKnife stereotactic radiosurgery procedures to 6 tumors, focusing on radiation at any most cancers cells they may discover. Docs used staples to shut the surgical websites, making my head resemble a community of practice tracks. Some pals visiting me known as me “Zipper Head.”
After three mind surgical procedures in winter of 2021-22 at Stanford Medical Middle, spouse Denese Stienstra comforts her husband in his hospital mattress. Courtesy Robert Stienstra Sr.
Dr. Sunil Reddy, a cutaneous oncology specialist, scheduled immunology infusions each two to a few weeks to jump-start my immune system and assault the most cancers that had grown in my lungs, liver, lymph nodes and plenty of different spots.
Over the primary six weeks of therapy, the infusions turned my grayish-brown hair and beard a vivid white. David Zimmer, a pal since age 13, began calling me “Woodrow” and “Captain” after Capt. Woodrow Name (performed by Tommy Lee Jones) within the TV Western mini-series “Lonesome Dove.”
“Sure, your hair turning white is said, and possibly a very good signal,” Dr. Reddy mentioned.
In simply two months, my physique, as soon as educated to bench press 250 kilos, grew to become skinny and frail; docs gave me a raise restrict of two kilos. My weight shrank by 60 kilos, hitting a low of 157.
The primary two mind surgical procedures have been carried out as emergency procedures. They made my imaginative and prescient go haywire. Once I awoke within the ICU, the room appeared sideways. When Denese visited, I may see solely the higher half of her; she appeared as if she have been gliding across the mattress. My blood strain rocketed. Nurses appeared petrified, frightened I used to be headed for a seizure or stroke. I attempted to remain calm however largely failed. My respiration grew to become brief and shallow. I frightened about going blind.
I’d later be taught that the surgical staff had given me a couple of 50% likelihood of surviving that first week.
“You virtually died twice on the working desk,” Dr. Chang informed me later.
Stienstra sits alone at his dwelling in McCloud (Siskiyou County). Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
I felt so humbled within the face of loss of life. I prayed to remain alive, each for an opportunity at a restart on life and for time to get my home so as. For therefore a few years, my purpose had been to participate in each exercise conceivable within the outdoor, share these experiences by my writing and attempt to be one of the best at doing it. As I recovered from my third mind surgical procedure, I obtained a textual content: The Outside Writers Affiliation of America had given me its highest award for profession achievement, making me the primary outdoor author from California to win within the group’s 93-year historical past.
But that day in mattress, my physique failing, unsure if I’d survive the week, I didn’t care about awards. As a substitute, I discovered myself regretting each imply factor I’d ever mentioned, lamenting having given the time of day to anyone who had crossed me. All that mattered, I spotted, have been the folks I cared so deeply for: my spouse, my household and pals, and people blessing me from afar.
Surviving adventures, shut calls
“So, that is the way it all ends.”
As an outdoorsman for greater than 40 years, there was no place I wouldn’t go, nothing I wouldn’t do, irrespective of how lengthy it took or how nice the problem. I’d spend as many as 200 days a yr within the subject. Alongside the way in which, I survived dozens of shut calls – in canoes, rafts, airplanes, within the wilderness on and off trails.
Stienstra shows his grizzly claw necklace. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
Early on, I realized that dangers within the wild typically come up with out warning. About 25 years in the past, I took programs in firearms and self-defense at Gunsite Academy in northern Arizona. There, Il Ling New – one of many high feminine self-defense instructors in America – taught me the First Commandment of Security: “Everybody thinks they are going to rise to the event. What occurs as a substitute is that you just default to your stage of coaching.”
So through the years, I at all times sought one of the best coaching earlier than I explored a brand new space or exercise. With that method, I grew to become competent in 25 areas of outside sports activities, together with mountaineering, all kinds of fishing and scuba diving.
Within the outdoor, although, surprises are a relentless. They’re one in all its nice appeals, however typically its biggest hazards, too. “You by no means see it coming,” we regularly say.
Just like the time I used to be flyfishing on the Moraine Creek in Alaska’s Katmai Nationwide Park within the mid-Nineties. I’d simply launched an 8-pound rainbow trout, my lifetime greatest trout on a fly rod, after I sensed a shadow. Trying up, I locked eyes with a 1,000-pound grizzly bear on the high of a bluff about 40 yards away. It charged down the bluff, instantly at me within the river. “So, that is the way it all ends,” I keep in mind considering.
Within the water, thigh deep, I backed off cautiously. On the identical time, I watched the large bear swim slowly throughout deep water to get to the place I’d been standing. That gave me an opportunity to create extra distance. The large bear stopped proper the place I’d been fishing, rose up excessive after which swirled in a circle within the river, slapping the water with its large paws. It let me withdraw, however its message was clear: He was letting me know that this was his fishing spot, not mine.
A grizzly bear as soon as charged Stienstra whereas he was flyfishing for rainbow trout, just like the one at proper, in Alaska’s Katmai Nationwide Park. In the summertime of 1995, it was a typical scene on the park for grizzly bears, left, to nab salmon off of fishing hooks. Courtesy John Reginato | Courtesy Barbara Wolverton
One other time, within the early 2000s, armed with a muzzleloader I had constructed, I used to be attempting to find wild pigs close to Mill Creek above Black Rock within the Ishi Wilderness in distant Tehama County. I noticed a uncommon wild cow about 100 yards away. I fired my rifle close to him to attempt to scare him off, however he simply stood there. I made a decision to call him BDS, for “Massive, Dumb and Silly.”
Two hours later, although, BDS emerged in entrance of me as I rounded a big rock. He charged, his horns sharp as spears. I dove to the facet and he missed plowing into me by inches.
I’ve had dozens of encounters like these, close to misses that make for excellent campfire tales. However trying again now, I understand these experiences have given me a humbled outlook on the world, and a deep respect for nature.
And generally, I’ve realized, each within the outdoor and in on a regular basis life, you simply may want a guardian angel.
On a chilly late November day in 1985, my brother Bob, our dad Robert Sr., my cousin Lloyd and I ventured out to Hills Creek Reservoir on the west flank of the Oregon Cascades for a canoe fishing journey. Trout typically chew on frigid days as if it’s their final supper earlier than winter takes over.
As we arrived, we noticed that ice had began forming in shaded, wind-protected coves alongside the shore. The air was crisp, so we bundled up in layers.
After we launched my canoe, I took the strict, steering and serving to energy the boat. The others took turns getting on board and paddling on the bow. After an hour or two on the lake, Bob and I paddled to shore. I dropped him off and commenced turning the boat throughout a big cove to choose up Lloyd on the far shore. I used a way known as the “J-Stroke,” extra correctly the “Ojibwe Stroke,” I’d been taught. It permits the strict paddler to maintain the canoe in a straight line with out having to shift the paddle to the opposite facet, and within the course of, drip water within the boat.
But instantly, the canoe felt mistaken. With out one other paddler up entrance, the boat was stern-heavy. The bow rose up, and a powerful Ojibwe stroke flipped the canoe.
The water was icy, possibly 34 to 36 levels. To my brother on shore, I instantly appeared disoriented. He mentioned I flailed round aimlessly and incoherently for greater than 5 minutes. To me, it appeared like simply 15 or 20 seconds.
Someway, I used to be capable of pull myself atop the flipped canoe, to make use of it as a float beneath my chest. I assumed I may kick-paddle my approach to shore, however my legs have been numb and unresponsive. That’s why life preservers can’t at all times prevent in icy water. To Bob, it appeared like I might need gone down for the depend twice.
The reality is, the water stopped feeling chilly. I truly felt good, even euphoric. I discovered later, from others who had survived close to drownings in chilly water, that this can be a feeling you may get simply earlier than you go down for good.
Bob stripped, jumped in and swam out to me. I attempted to wave him off, to shout, “I’m high-quality, don’t fear about me,” however no phrases got here out.
As Bob grabbed the bow of the upside-down canoe, he let loose a deep-throated groan of anguish from the chilly water. By means of sheer pressure of will, he paddled us to shore.
After Lloyd and Bob hoisted me onto land, my legs nonetheless wouldn’t perform. “I’m in worse form than I assumed,” I keep in mind considering. As hypothermia set in, I simply wished to sleep.
The unique Stienstra Navy, with Tom, brother Bob (simply behind Tom) and Robert Sr. (far proper), heading out on the Chucky’s Delight out of Fisherman’s Wharf in summer season of 1987 for a night fishing journey for striped bass close to the South Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Courtesy San Francisco Examiner
Bob, who had served as an assistant medic and radio man on the entrance traces in Vietnam, slapped my face in an try and maintain me alert and fed me path combine and jerky – understanding that digestion may help create heat from inside. He and Lloyd pulled off my moist stuff and dressed me in Bob’s dry clothes. Inside an hour, I got here to.
Bob and Lloyd flipped the canoe proper facet up. Inside, trapped beneath the yoke, was a paddle, the fishing rod that my late grandfather had given me after I was a boy, and a blue rubber canine bone that my canine Insurgent had rebuffed.
That night, over dinner at a pizza parlor, Bob mentioned that discovering these gadgets nonetheless in place was a message.
“It means you’re meant to paddle and fish once more and have a protracted, joyful life with Insurgent,” he mentioned. For the remainder of my life, I made a decision, I’d bless each journey on a ship with that blue rubber canine bone.
I informed Bob he had saved my life. He smiled, and jogged my memory that the rod my grandfather had given me survived the accident too. Possibly, he mentioned, “we had someone looking for us the entire time.”
It started with a cough
“I don’t know the way proper now, however in some way I’ll beat this factor.”
My most cancers confirmed up in the summertime of 2021 in a far much less dramatic approach, in an annoying cough.
Stienstra talks together with his spouse, Denese, as he undergoes an immunotherapy infusion on the Dignity Well being St. Elizabeth Outpatient Surgical procedure Middle in Pink Bluff in January. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
That August, in three days over per week’s time, Denese and I had trekked a mountain stream, biked 15 miles and climbed Mt. Shasta off path as much as 10,000 ft. And I started to cough. We blamed it on particles within the smoky air from wildfires within the area. A visit to my physician led to an intensive check-up. After listening to my coronary heart and lungs, two docs discovered no points. “I want all my sick sufferers sounded such as you,” one mentioned.
The subsequent week, in the hunt for clear, clear air, we ventured to northern Oregon. But after climbing close to the brink of Multnomah Falls alongside the Columbia River, the coughing continued. Again in California, we returned to the physician’s workplace. After exams once more revealed no points, Denese, who has a healthcare background, prompt we get an X-ray of my lungs at a neighborhood hospital.
It confirmed a large tumor in my proper lung, plus a number of smaller tumors.
“Rattling it!” she mentioned, “This wasn’t imagined to occur. You owe me one other 30 years.” Once we have been married in 2015, we made it a purpose to have a dream life collectively – and for every of us to dwell to 100.
“I don’t know the way proper now,” I informed her, “however in some way I’ll beat this factor.”
The X-ray, although, was devastating. It simply made no sense. Most life expectancy estimates are based mostly on genetics, and my mom, similar to Denese’s, is in her 90s, wholesome and vibrant. There is no such thing as a most cancers in my household historical past.
I puzzled if I missed a clue within the many complications I had had. Over time, I had tried treating them by taking Excedrin each day and sporting a mouth guard to maintain from grinding my enamel. For 30 years, I at all times talked about the complications at annual check-ups, however no physician thought to order an MRI examination of my mind.
In any other case, there’d been no signal of great sickness. Denese and I eat proper, sleep proper and are energetic and match; we’ve hiked and biked tens of hundreds of miles collectively. We each detest even the distant scent of cigarette smoke. As a result of I’m a pilot, I’ve had my blood drawn and checked for a sequence of benchmarks each two years for many of my grownup life.
I additionally had adopted recommendation that my longtime pal and fishing accomplice, Dusty Baker, gave me 20 years in the past. Dusty, the previous Giants supervisor who gained the World Sequence final yr with the Houston Astros, informed me to have blood drawn yearly “and have it examined for every thing conceivable.”
“It is advisable to have a baseline,” he mentioned. “That’s how they catch the dangerous stuff. At some point a quantity is available in out of whack and so they know what must be addressed.”
With hospitals crammed with COVID sufferers that summer season, it was tough to seek out one that will admit me. A longtime pal and mentor, philanthropist Gary Bechtel, as soon as informed me if I ever want medical care, to let him make a name for me. That’s how I acquired into Stanford Medical Middle.
Docs there first deliberate to do a biopsy on the most cancers mass in my proper lung. As a substitute, after observing me and conducting a number of exams, they put me in a wheelchair and despatched me for a sequence of mind scans. About 2 or 3 a.m. that evening, after CT, PET and MRI scans, they informed me that I used to be filled with most cancers. It was the primary I knew my life was a most cancers timebomb.
A neurosurgery staff specializing in mind surgical procedure was placed on emergency discover. Docs put me on meds to stop a seizure and had nurses watch over me. Just one customer, my spouse, COVID-free and vaccinated, was allowed in my room.
The thought of my mind and physique filled with most cancers was petrifying. At first, we didn’t know what sort of most cancers it was. However inside per week, docs decided it was melanoma, doubtless from the in depth publicity to the solar earlier in my life.
Desires and information convey hope
“He’s acquired to be probably the most cussed man on the market.”
I’ve been fortunate in life to make nice pals, most of them common of us, some well-known. After my preliminary mind surgical procedures, I used to be visited in my goals by a few of them who had handed.
Stienstra appears to be like at a framed print of nation music legends, together with his good pal Waylon Jennings, as he performs guitar. Stienstra dreamed of his pals after his preliminary mind surgical procedures. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
One was my longtime climbing buddy Jeffrey Patty, who died of most cancers years earlier than. Nation music “outlaws” Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard additionally confirmed up. We had hit it off earlier than they grew to become well-known, and through the years, we discovered instances to attach. In my goals they have been joyful and lightweight, so not like their personalities in life. And they’d provide recommendation.
In a single dream, Jeffrey informed me to go to Apple Jack’s bar in La Honda, order a Pabst Blue Ribbon, tip massive, then look ahead to an indication from him. So, on a weekend earlier than a Monday surgical procedure, Denese drove us to Apple Jack’s and I complied with Jeff’s directions. If there was an indication, although, it was too delicate to discern.
Jeffrey Patty live-bait fishing for striped bass off of Yellow Bluff close to the Golden Gate Bridge on San Francisco Bay, within the mid-Nineteen Eighties. Courtesy Tom Stienstra
These goals, although, helped me maintain onto hope that it doesn’t matter what was forward, life or loss of life, I’d be OK.
Family and friends helped, too.
One in every of my greatest pals, Steve Griffin of Michigan – an outdoor author, writer and my muse – wrote me a passionate letter. It was essential for me to simply accept the Outside Writers award, he mentioned. Tons of of writers throughout America dream of such an honor. Grif is one in all a handful of individuals I hearken to. Nonetheless, it took me two months after I obtained the bundle with the plaque earlier than I opened it.
Some days, I’d be taken outdoors in a wheelchair. There could be Bob, sitting on a bench, typically with a e book, having waited for hours hoping for a number of moments to attach. At some point Dr. Chang had an opportunity assembly with him. “How’s my brother?” Bob requested.
“He gave us some challenges, however he emerged,” Dr. Chang informed him. “He’s acquired to be probably the most cussed man on the market.”
Two weeks in, after two mind surgical procedures, a blood drain and CyberKnife radiosurgery procedures to 6 tumors, I obtained the primary of a number of texts I’d get from Dusty. Over the course of his time in San Francisco, we grew to become pals and fishing buddies; in my boat, casting for bass from the bow, he is sort of a Golden Retriever on level, probably the most centered and intense angler I’ve ever had aboard.
In early spring of 2022, a “railroad monitor” of staples crosses Tom’s cranium after the fourth mind surgical procedure to take away a mind tumor at Stanford Medical Middle. A fifth surgical procedure incision (proper) is seen close to the big scar from a hatchet assault Tom survived in 1975. Pictures: Courtesy Denese Stienstra
Dusty was identified with prostate most cancers in 2002 whereas he was managing the Giants. Final winter, throughout a visit to Kauai, he contacted me: The important thing to beating most cancers, Dusty wrote, is to have nice journeys to sit up for. Your physique will keep alive to ensure you expertise them.
“Hold your purpose in your thoughts, physique and soul,” Dusty mentioned. “Hold dwelling and having fun with each second.”
All through my profession, many readers who had obtained diagnoses like mine sought me out. Some requested if I’d share time with them, maybe take them on a final particular journey, or simply present recommendation on my favourite locations to go. I at all times did my greatest to assist them, even taking some on flights in my aircraft. I’d by no means as soon as thought, “This might occur to me.”
One man, named Al, who would die of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s illness, informed me: “If I’d recognized I used to be going to get one thing like this, I’d have performed numerous issues in another way in my life.”
I’ve heard virtually the identical factor from each particular person I’ve related with who has been identified with most cancers. From early in mycareer, it made me decided to depart no dream behind. Staying true to that philosophy generally drove my supervisors loopy: I typically refused to participate in any work that was not a part of that dream.
I’ve come to be taught that there are lots of people within the most cancers membership – and numerous survivors.
The American Affiliation for Most cancers Analysis (AACR) reported in late 2021 that greater than 18 million People have a historical past of most cancers, “but extra folks than ever are having fun with extra extended and extra fulfilling lives after receiving a most cancers analysis.” Most cancers loss of life charges declined by 2.3% between 2016 and 2019, in line with the AACR.
The affiliation additionally reported in 2022 that the FDA permitted eight new anticancer therapies, together with for melanoma. These are immunotherapy regimes, the place blood is drawn for evaluation each two weeks to a month, then adopted, a day or two later, with intravenous infusion. Every session takes about an hour to finish; the drug gives the physique with elements to spice up its immune response. Stanford oncologist Dr. Reddy ordered an IV infusion of Nivolumab each two weeks, and defined that MRI scans of the mind and PET scans of the physique can assess if therapy helps diminish and beat again the melanoma most cancers.
Well being, high quality and size of life can be enriched by many different elements, Dr. Mauro Janoski, my oncologist at Dignity Well being/St. Elizabeth Hospital in Pink Bluff (Tehama County), informed me. I’ve been receiving immunotherapy there for the previous a number of months, and as this yr developed, docs doubled the dose however lowered the infusion to as soon as a month. “Health, weight, not smoking, consuming proper, sleeping proper, perspective and hope can all have an effect on your well being and the way lengthy you reside,” he mentioned. A community of loyal pals you may belief 100% can be important, he mentioned. A affected person and loving partner can flip your life round, he mentioned.
Stienstra has his weight checked earlier than he undergoes an immunotherapy infusion at an outpatient clinic in January. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
Sufferers who get the kind of immunotherapy infusions I’ve obtained have a variety of response charges. In accordance with a number of medical services that carry out them, about 20% to 50% survive over a 10-month interval. These beginning with good health, no dangerous habits and good genetics do one of the best.
At a medical convention in fall of 2021 in France, one research reported that 20% of most cancers sufferers utilizing immunotherapy infusions, typically together with chemotherapy, survived 5 years after the unique analysis. The purpose, at Stanford and different services with most cancers therapy facilities, is to seek out methods to harness and increase the immune system to combat most cancers reasonably than utilizing chemo regimens to attempt to kill it.
In early winter a yr in the past, the primary PET scan discovered 10 tumors in my liver, in addition to others all through my physique. Six months later, one other PET scan discovered no tumors in my liver. Many others have been all however gone. By means of all of it, although, I generally felt like I used to be disappearing, too. Final winter, my weight dropped under 160, my hair turned white in a single day, and my face and chest grew to become virtually skeletal.
For good luck throughout one immunotherapy therapy at Stanford, I wore a customized sweatshirt I acquired from Jacqueline Douglas, captain of the Wacky Jacky sportfishing boat at Fisherman’s Wharf, with my title embroidered on the appropriate higher chest. One other affected person walked by 3 times, watching me, then lastly stopped.
“The place did you get that sweatshirt?” he requested. “Did Tom Stienstra give it to you? I met him at a sports activities present and he appears to be like nothing such as you.”
Nonetheless, after six weeks at Stanford, I used to be allowed to go dwelling. I used to be sick however alive, and Denese grew to become my nurse.
As soon as dwelling, although, she needed to take me to the emergency room to be handled for 2 infections, and docs ordered me on oxygen full time. It took one other month to emerge from that encounter. When oxygen tubes have been eliminated, I started to really feel like I simply may survive.
A celebration, then a shock
“That’s simply scar tissue.”
Following Dusty’s recommendation, Denese and I scheduled a visit to Kauai and deliberate different landmark-type moments for the months forward. That helped me make it by the yr. Over six months into the summer season, I added 40 kilos and began regaining my energy, together with my imaginative and prescient and voice. As I constructed my energy, I went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, and eventually started strolling alone.
Stienstra appears to be like over a brand new Nutcracker together with his spouse, Denese, heart, and their pal Carol Winston, on the Stienstra’s dwelling in McCloud. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
“Extra like staggering,” Denese remarked. “You moved like a zombie in ‘Evening of the Dwelling Useless.’ ”
We determined it was time to have fun. In late August, Denese and I hosted a celebration for family and friends who had supported us throughout my ordeal. We known as it “By no means Say Die.” It was a dream night. At one level I acquired to play lead guitar on a number of songs with Northern California guitar legend Jimmy Limo. Most of the 75 of us on the celebration congratulated me for “beating most cancers.”
However simply two weeks later, the afterglow of the get together dimmed. A radiologist learning a brand new MRI scan of my mind recognized two small spots that appeared like white kidney beans. He believed they have been new tumors forming at websites the place tumors had been eliminated.
I felt a deep pang in my intestine. Out of the blue, the battle was again on. My deliberate journey to Kauai appeared uncertain. We scheduled a gathering with Dr. Chang, considering we would wish to rearrange one other surgical procedure, extra CyberKnife therapies, or each.
But because the assembly began, Dr. Chang appeared gentle and joyful, even effusive. He had reviewed the MRI pictures and skim the radiologist’s report. “All the pieces appears to be like nice,” he mentioned. “The areas of the surgical procedures look considerably higher from the final MRI.”
Certainly there was nonetheless dangerous information, we thought.
“The radiologist recognized two new small tumors,” Denese mentioned. “What about that?”
“That,” Dr. Chang mentioned, “is simply scar tissue forming at surgical websites out of your prior therapies.”
In a single sentence, I had my life again. What had felt like a pile of bricks on my again lifted immediately.
Dr. Chang confirmed us my mind scans, declaring the small white shapes that had been recognized as tumors.
“No one is aware of the within of Tom’s mind like me,” he mentioned with a smile.
Denese’s face was crammed with astonishment. The second felt like a scene from “The Twilight Zone.”
A primary brush with loss of life
“You ever discover how numerous unusual issues appear to occur to you?”
Throughout on a regular basis I spent in a hospital mattress, I seen that the mind-bending complications I had suffered for years had stopped. Docs weren’t crystal clear why this occurred, however my head felt freed from ache.
Stienstra close to his dwelling in McCloud, Calif. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
I additionally had time to assume and mirror. I assumed again on all of the shut calls I’d had in my life: the grizzly bear, my near-drowning, the wild cow, countless others. It appeared miraculous I had survived these.
My mother, Eleanor, now 95, as soon as took me apart. “You ever discover how numerous unusual issues appear to occur to you?” she mentioned. That remark has at all times made me giggle.
Surviving the most cancers in my mind and all through my physique, I figured, may take an precise miracle. Just like the one which occurred many years earlier than, when my mind got here beneath one other form of assault.
I used to be simply 21, working my approach by school at San Jose State. I used to be incomes $5 a narrative from a number of peninsula newspapers I wrote for, and $10 a pop from the Related Press, so I took on a number of facet jobs. One was working part-time at a fuel station on El Camino Actual in Menlo Park.
5 instances per week on summer season evenings, I staffed the place alone. On the evening of July 16, 1975, at 10:03 p.m., I used to be closing up store when a man got here up behind me and hit me within the head with a hatchet. His mission: kill me and steal the cash within the until.
The blow first felt like my head was a tender melon splitting aside. My cranium vibrated as if I have been standing within the heart of a large gong echoing round me. I keep in mind falling, however in some way, on the way in which down, deflected a second whack that hit me within the again. Within the course of, I turned my head and acquired a split-second have a look at the face of my attacker. Within the disaster of the second, my mind was working so quick that every thing appeared to be in sluggish movement. Although I locked eyes with the attacker for only a second, it felt as if I’d stared into his face for hours.
My shirt was soaked crimson. A 6-foot-wide pool of blood shaped round me. I used to be bleeding out on the ground, I spotted. Earlier than I handed out, I keep in mind considering, “This might be it.”
Paramedics arrived and put me on a gurney. Menlo Park Police later informed me I had known as them, together with giving an outline of the perp, however I didn’t keep in mind doing that. What I do keep in mind, nonetheless vividly, is that because the paramedics carried me to an ambulance and tried to cease the bleeding, I stared up, and searching down at me, I noticed a gaggle of 20 or so folks. They have been gathered round me in a half circle, silhouetted and backlit by the brilliant lights of the fuel station behind them.
Later, a co-worker who lived subsequent to the fuel station informed me that nobody else was round when the paramedics reached me, and that I used to be unconscious once they carried me to the ambulance. I’ve at all times puzzled if possibly I had glimpsed figures from one other dimension, ready for me to cross over.
On the way in which to Stanford’s hospital, the paramedics stopped the bleeding, saving my life. On arrival, I used to be transported for X-rays, mind scans and therapy, plus a blood infusion. As soon as docs have been satisfied there was no extra bleeding in my mind, they sewed up the canyon behind my head.
Tom Stienstra at age 20 (left), protecting a water polo sport as editor of the Foothill Faculty Sentinel, shortly earlier than surviving a hatchet assault, which made information within the Palo Alto Occasions. Picture courtesy Paul Sakuma | Information clippingfrom Palo Alto Occasions
The person who attacked me, Frank C. Carrasco, had a rap sheet three pages lengthy. He was arrested for the assault six months later. In San Mateo County Superior Court docket, he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years to life in jail, however was launched after 2 1/2 years. For years afterward I stored monitor of him, and even stored my tenting hatchet beneath the seat of my truck.
Although many prompt I am going after him, together with detectives who gave me his deal with, I’m proud I by no means sought revenge. Over time, alone at camps with my canine, Insurgent, I typically thought of it. However I made a decision my life was too good, a dream life at instances, to do something to violate it. Nonetheless, when Carrasco died a number of years in the past, I felt an amazing aid.
For a few years after that assault, I suffered from post-traumatic stress dysfunction, and Insurgent was my service animal – although I didn’t understand both on the time.
A therapist with an experience in PTSD, Stan Drucker, helped me learn to keep away from the meltdowns I had by stopping triggers that may line up like a row of dominoes earlier than tumbling into an implosion. After a meltdown, I would react by flying to Canada in my aircraft, climbing a number of weeks on the Pacific Crest Path, bailing with Insurgent to camp solo or driving someplace for 12 hours.
Typically I’d go six, seven months with out setting foot in an workplace. Once I lastly did, I may solely cope with the sensation of the partitions closing in on me for an hour or two, after which must bail once more to my truck or airplane and hit the wide-open areas. Some folks thought I used to be loopy or on medicine. Nope. Luckily, I used to be blessed to work with editors who realized I wasn’t loopy, simply “a wounded brother,” as Waylon known as me.
Nowadays, my solely job is engaged on beating my most cancers. In mid-December, a blood take a look at confirmed my white blood cells have been measuring usually, an indicator that my immune system was once more firing on all cylinders. Simply earlier than Christmas, Dr. Reddy supplied his distinctive perspective. “Folks can dwell 5 years (after being identified), and possibly after 5 years you is perhaps cured,” he mentioned. “Actually, you can have 10 years.”
My docs stay involved concerning the potential for inoperable mind tumors; immunotherapy doesn’t fight mind most cancers. That’s the reason I’ve MRI exams of my mind each three months.
Ten years gained’t get me to 100. However Denese and I are nonetheless planning on dwelling a dream life.
As a result of if I’ve realized something from this shut name, it’s that ultimately, love is all that issues. Like Dusty informed me: Take into consideration your priorities, what’s essential and what’s not. Make time to attach with the individuals who matter most, and no matter your non secular outlook, keep spiritually related.
I’ve additionally realized that my lifetime of climbing just about each day, together with tenting, boating, fishing, driving bikes and flying, retains me match, builds my immune system and gives one thing I can at all times sit up for. And Denese and I now have a brand new accomplice in our travels. Final Saturday, we adopted a new child Bernese mountain canine. Similar to us, this pet might want to go for a number of walks each day.
Stienstra and his spouse, Denese, stroll within the snow close to their dwelling. Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle
Tom Stienstra is The Chronicle’s outdoor author emeritus. His newest e book, “52 Weekend Adventures,” gained second place within the nation for out of doors e book of the yr from the OWAA.