Herald JournalHerald Journal, Oct. 11, 2004

Waverly man battles cancer with renewed hope

By Jane Otto

George Karels is not one to take bad news sitting down.

Despite undergoing radiation for one cancer and awaiting chemotherapy for another, the 72-year-old rural Waverly man goes to work daily and mowed his lawn last Monday.

“Just sitting around that I don’t do,” Karels said. “If there’s nothing else to do, I go fishing.”

Sitting at the kitchen table in the house where he’s lived since he was 11, Karels recalled his medical past.

Karels’ medical troubles surfaced about 12 years ago when he was being treated for an apparent ulcer. One October night, he awoke vomiting blood. Through an emergency room visit, the 60-year-old man learned gastric lymphoma was at the root of his four-month illness. It was 1988.

Though memorable, the Karels family Christmas was not a good one that year.

Prior to the holiday, Karels had one chemotherapy treatment and was scheduled for a second on Christmas Eve. He was given a reprieve due to the yuletide season. Karels found it difficult to eat anything, let alone enjoy his holiday favorites.

He returned to the hospital Christmas Day. This time, doctors told him the cancer’s growth had plugged his stomach. He was whisked away to a Twin Cities hospital, where after 10 radiation treatments, doctors removed roughly 40 percent of his stomach.

Following the surgery, the doctors appeared somewhat stunned when they visited with the Karels family, his daughter, Diane Hoiland, recalled. “Doctors said the surgery was a miracle,” Hoiland said. “They said the cancer was gone.”

One doctor had his doubts as to whether Karels had cancer at all, Karels recalled. “He thought it was all scar tissue, probably ulcers.”

Karels spent the next two weeks recovering. “I was all tubes — tubes going in and tubes going out,” he said. Dropping 61 pounds, his approximate 5-foot, 6-inch frame carried a mere 117 pounds. Karels, however, was going home.

His strength returned and Karels returned to work. A recycling business he started in Waverly with his son was booming. Life was good.

The cancer returns

Three and a half years ago, a bad bout of pneumonia was a forewarning for what was to come. Karels recovered from the pneumonia’s wrath, but now, sitting at his kitchen table with hands folded, he said, “I was a heavy smoker.”

Two years later, another bout of pneumonia forced his hand and he put down the cigarettes for good.

It was June 2003.

Every summer, Karels planted and cared for a massive garden. “You name it, I grow it,” he said with a laugh.

“That was his big pride,” Hoiland, said, but added she and her siblings seeded and hoed the Karels’ garden last year.

Wringing her hands, Laura Karels flashed worried eyes across the kitchen table at her husband, recalling how sick he was that year.

“He was in and out of the hospital 12 times — pneumonia, dehydration,” she said.

Shortness of breath and an irregular heart beat, coupled with his pneumonia, sent Karels to the emergency room in June 2003. Following a scan, doctors said everything was OK.

A second scan the following month, however, revealed two tumors on his lower right lung. Doctors ruled out surgery because of the proximity of the lungs to major organs.

Two rounds of chemotherapy were followed with 33 radiation treatments. Like being sunburned on the inside, Karels struggled with a sip of water. “It would take me a half an hour to drink a glass of water,” he said. “I’d swallow, wait for the pain to go away, and swallow again.”

Karels dropped 30 pounds that summer. “The doctors didn’t believe us when we said he couldn’t eat,” Laura recalled. “The doctors said he should try.”

Two more chemotherapy treatments were to follow, but Karels didn’t think he could endure the ravages of those drugs. He was still battling pneumonia.

A scope showed signs of chemical gastritis, doctors said. They were not hopeful. They asked Laura Karels if she wanted to keep her husband at home.

Karels was sent home with a prognosis of less than six months to live and a bottle of oxygen, which doctors told him he could not do without.

September 2003, came and the youngest of the Karels 13 children was to be married.

“I prayed and prayed he could go to the wedding,” Laura recalled.

A fighter, Karels attended his son’s wedding, but it was a pale and fragile version of himself. It was a version that his family was unwillingly becoming familiar with.

A family photograph taken that day is evidence of Karel’s sick pallor.

“Whenever I get scared now, that picture reminds me of where he was and where he is today,” Hoiland said.

A TV commercial

Karels was now pretty much confined to his home and attached to his oxygen.

Vaguely paying attention to the TV’s drone, his attention was piqued by a commercial about a Twin Cities area cancer clinic. “We called and had an appointment for Oct. 1, (2003),” he said.

A $14 steroid prescription was the beginning of his recovery, Karels said. Doctors cleared up the pneumonia and took away his oxygen. Lung cancer is not even a concern anymore.

“It was only the second of October and he was noticing a difference,” Hoiland recalled. “They never gave us any false hope. They never promised us a cure, but a better quality of life for his time here.”

He went several months without any treatments, but the cancer flared up again. Three tumors recently surfaced on his brain. They’re small and “very treatable,” Karels said.

He’s undergoing radiation for them and then faces 15 or 20 chemotherapy treatments for a tumor that resides between his liver and pancreas. These treatments, however, are milder and easier to take than what he had prior to coming to the cancer clinic, he said.

Though far from being granted a clean bill of health, Karels’ ruddy complexion and stocky frame are signs of a rejuvenated lifestyle. He cared for his trademark garden the past summer.

He works half days with his son and treasures time with any of his 42 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

When asked how his eating habits are, Karels laughed, patted his stomach and said, “See for yourself. I gained back what I lost.”

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