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A life-threatening disease helps one Pro-Am player find his passion.
As Cindy and Ron Theobald sat in the comfort of the Stanford hospitality tent, pretending to ignore the leaderboard, they cautioned themselves against hope. After all, hope was best reserved for the big stuff, like surviving cancer. And Aaron, their 23-year-old son, had already done that.
It was April 26, 2008, and the inaugural Stanford International Pro-Am golf tournament in Aventura, Florida, was winding down. A relaxed Aaron sat nearby, joking with his tournament partner Beth Bader, a seasoned professional of the LPGA Tour. The Bader-Theobald team had shot a 64 and finished 25-under par. No matter what, they’d done a good job.
Then the leaderboard finally changed, revealing that the most competitive team had fallen by the wayside.
“It began to seem like he might win this thing,” Ron says.
So the parents allowed themselves to feel that surge of emotion that had sustained them during the long years of Aaron’s treatment: Hope.
The Bader-Theobald team beat their best competition by three shots and won the tournament.
Aaron broke into a grin and enjoyed his moment. After all, he’d come so far.
When Aaron was 8 years old, he spied a set of golf clubs at a garage sale. He ran all the way home and begged his father for $5 to buy them.
“He came home with the most beat-up set of clubs,” Ron remembers. “Then he proceeded to dig up our front yard by smacking the balls all around.”
Once Aaron started playing, he never stopped. He was an intuitive player who got better without lessons. His abilities seemed a gift.
So in summer 2001, when 16-year-old Aaron lost his enthusiasm for golf, his parents knew something was wrong.
“Mentally I felt fine, but I was tired all the time,” Aaron says. “Normally you couldn’t keep me from golf on a sunny day, but all I wanted to do was sit on the couch.”
That July, Aaron began suffering from nausea and abdominal cramps. His symptoms indicated mononucleosis, but tests for the virus came back negative. The family doctor referred Aaron to a local hematologist, where Aaron underwent a bone marrow biopsy. Even before the tests came back, the family knew something was wrong.
“Normally, you want your bone marrow to be watery and juicy,” Ron says. “But he said the bone marrow was so dry and packed that it was hard to get it into the syringe.”
The biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), the most common type of cancer in children.
“I was very upset about it,” Aaron says. “This was the summer after I had just turned 16. I wanted to go out with friends. This was the first summer that I had my driver’s license, but instead I was stuck doing nothing. But I knew I had to tackle it head on. I didn’t really have a choice.”
If Aaron was annoyed by the inconvenience of cancer, his father was petrified.
“I had lost my younger sister to leukemia in 1969 when I was 10, so it scared me,” Ron says. “I watched what the disease did to her and to my parents. When she passed away, it was terrible.”
Ron asked the doctor if Aaron would die from the disease.
“The doctor looked at me very surprised and said, ‘Oh, no. I don’t think so. It’s not the killer it used to be.’”
Thanks in large measure to research and treatment protocols developed at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, great strides have been made in leukemia research. In the 1960s, the survival rate for ALL was in the single digits. Today, the survival rate is 94 percent.
The hematologist advised the family to take Aaron to St. Jude.
“The doctor told us, ‘Because he’s young enough and fits the St. Jude protocol, that’s absolutely where you want to be,’” Ron says.
The family packed their belongings and drove to the hospital for a two-month stay.
“I knew we were in the right place,” Ron says. “From the moment we walked in the door, we felt a sense of well being.”
Aaron endured three years of a chemotherapy protocol tailored to his leukemia subtype.
“With St. Jude testing, we discovered that Aaron’s leukemia cells had a genetic marker, TEL-AML1, which put him into the low-risk leukemia category,” explains St. Jude oncologist Sima Jeha, MD. “So because of that, he received less intensive chemotherapy than he would have had otherwise.”
Even with the calibrated dosages, Aaron’s treatment took its toll. He suffered nausea and mouth sores, the typical side effects of chemotherapy, and lost a drastic amount of weight.
He also went through periods of lowered immunity. When Aaron’s counts were low, he couldn’t attend school. But he could play golf.
“Golf was always relaxing for me,” Aaron says. “I hear about how golf stresses some people out, but it was never that way for me. What I like about golf is that it gives me time to myself. It’s one of the few places where I feel in control.”
But then the pain began.
An MRI of Aaron’s hips, knees and ankles revealed avascular necrosis (AVN), a bone condition that can arise from the administration of steroids, a crucial component of leukemia therapy.
“We’ve found that certain patients, especially adolescents like Aaron, are more predisposed for this side effect,” Jeha says. “In these patients, the steroids reduce the blood supply to the bones, resulting in bone tissue death. AVN most commonly affects the ends of long bones such as the femur—the bone that extends from the knee joint to the hip joint. In severe cases, involvement of the head of the femur often leads to collapse of the joint, and hip replacement is needed.”
His St. Jude treatment team acted quickly.
“As soon as AVN is detected, a multidisciplinary team of oncologists, orthopedists, physical therapists, nurses and pharmacists work together to help prevent further bone and joint damage and reduce the pain” Jeha says. “We protect the joint by limiting movement, and we adjust the steroids based on AVN severity and treatment phase. We ask ourselves: ‘How much can we reduce steroids without compromising the benefits of treatment?’ In Aaron’s case, we decided to stop the steroids and substitute that with methotrexate.”
Ultimately, however, hip surgery was needed. In September 2004, Aaron had his right hip replaced. A second hip surgery was performed two years later.
Aaron approached these setbacks with a fighter’s spirit. He built his muscles back with physical therapy and relearned his golf swing not once, but twice.
“He wasn’t one of these kids who bucked the treatment and therapy just because it was hard,” says Nurse Practitioner Martha May. “He persevered and made the best of the situation.”
Now 23, Aaron has a near-genius IQ. He enjoys writing and political theory and would probably be well matched in any number of careers, but his true passion is golf. Aaron, who carries an 8 handicap, knows a golf career requires dedication, talent and more than a little bit of luck, but he’s determined to try.
“Golf is important in my life,” Aaron says. “I still feel like I have a chance to make a golf career. If I’m going to do it, I need to do it within the next few years. I have this short window of time when I’m in my best physical shape to make the move.”
Aaron’s golf skill brought him to the attention of the Stanford Financial Group, which sponsors the Eagles for St. Jude fundraiser. Stanford invited him to play in the Pro-Am, and his performance there set him squarely in the right direction toward reaching his goal.
Aaron says that his LPGA pro partner Beth Bader gave him confidence.
“To hear Aaron’s story, and what he’s battled at such a young age touched me and still touches me,” said Bader after the pair’s final round. “It was a pleasure and an inspiration playing with him.”
Buoyed by the win, Aaron will keep practicing his game, particularly the putting.
No matter what, he’s already a winner.
“Having cancer and surviving has changed my perspective,” Aaron says. “I’m more comfortable being who I am, if that makes any sense. St. Jude made me realize that I need to be true to myself. Life isn’t necessarily about following the rules.”
Reprinted from Promise, Summer 2008
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