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One For The Books

Ken Rolnicki and his wife Marilyn have always led an active life. At the age of fifty-six (56), despite his busy schedule as a business executive, graduate university professor, public speaker and author, Ken always found the time to get fit. He has enjoyed jogging, golf, pheasant hunting and cross country skiing. He will tell you with a smile that he can't sit still. To Ken, every moment is precious.

In early 1997 Ken was experiencing difficulty in breathing and was justifiably concerned about his physical endurance on a forthcoming, ten (10) day service seminar to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. He sought medical attention immediately. The first diagnosis was pneumonia, but the illness lingered. Ken just couldn't seem to shake it. The doctor ordered another series of chest x-rays and a lung scan. The lung scan showed that Ken's left lung's breathing capacity was normal, but his right lung was in severe distress. The lower two-thirds of the right lung had very little ventilation and was filled with fluid.

The doctors then conducted a biopsy and the results were shocking. The fluid contained many mesothelial tumor cells. Before the shock wore off, Ken and his family were busily searching for every medical option that was available. His oldest daughter, Melissa, was diligently researching all computer oriented records (local, national, Internet). His youngest daughter, Heather, was lending her medical research input as an occupational therapist, and Marilyn, his wife, was tying it all together into one informational format. Ken's vocabulary does not include the words "hopeless" or "incurable." They visited our website and contacted Marge Levine and Dr. David Sugarbaker at the Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston, MA. Dr. Sugarbaker, a pioneer in treating mesotheliotics, found Ken eligible for the tri-modal therapy.

During the preoperative evaluation on April 30, 1997, Dr. Sugarbaker explained the pros and cons of the tri-modal therapy, which entailed an extra pleural pneumonectomy (EPP) followed by adjuvant chemotherapy and radiation. Dr. Sugarbaker reminded Ken that he is not a miracle worker, and the chances for a flat out cure were remote. The object, instead, was to extend the quantity and quality of his life. Dr. Sugarbaker recited the statistics: the operative mortality was 5 to 7 % and there was a 20% chance of serious complications. Such complications included pulmonary embolus, myocardial infarction and post-operative bleeding or infection. The recovery process, he advised, would be long and trying. It might be necessary, he cautioned, for Ken to maintain a chest tube or remain on O2 supplement therapy for an uncomfortably long time.

On April 30th, an MRI test showed that the tumor had not invaded Ken's hemidiaphragm, chest wall, or mediastinum. This was excellent news. Ken and Marilyn agreed to the procedure.

On May 29, 1997 Ken underwent an EPP - the removal of his right lung and lung linings. It appeared to be successful. But early the next morning something went wrong. Marilyn received a call from one of the doctors at the hospital. At 4:00 a.m. she rushed to the hospital to be by Ken's side. Holding his hand, she pleaded with him: "Honey, please don't die. Ken, you'll get through this! I promise once you're well we will get down to our condo in Destin and walk with our dog Destin on the beach. We'll get there, I promise!!" Looking back, Ken recalls this was the most terrifying moment of his life. "I can assure you there is nothing exotic or enlightening about a near death experience." He could clearly hear Marilyn's pleas, as well as the doctors buzzing and charging about all around him. His vision was limited. He could only see a tiny beam of light, otherwise he was shrouded in darkness. Ken, who lives to talk, to banter, to orate, to create, could not utter a single word! At first he thought he had a stroke. As a test, he tried to shake his leg. It worked, and, relieved, he kept on shaking it. One of the doctors understood what he must have been thinking and grabbed Ken's leg and assured him that everything would be all right.

According to Dr. Sugarbaker's history, what happened to Ken occurs in ten (10) to fifteen (15) percent of his surgery patients. The lungs are connected to the heart and require an enormous amount of blood to function. When one of the lungs is removed the blood has no where to go. It's like being shell-shocked. Ken became dyspneic (short of breath), his oxygenation was not improving and chest films showed that the right chest space was filling up. Massive bleeding on the right side of the chest and further complications forced Ken to face another torturous surgery. By the time the doctors reopened Ken's chest the bleeding had stopped, but during this second surgery approximately 2300 cc of blood clot (about five (5) quarts of blood) was drained from his chest. Ken also developed atrial fibrillation because of the surgery. The next twenty-four (24) hours were tense.

Ken improved dramatically and was discharged from the hospital on June 6, 1997. Arrangements had been made for Ken and his family to stay at a motel in the Boston area to be close to his doctors. Three days later, Ken noticed an abnormality in his heart beat. He returned to the Brigham & Women's Cardiovascular Offices and was found to be having recurrent atrial fibrillations. He was hospitalized and stabilized with heparin and procainamide. Ken was finally discharged on June 13, 1997.

Once home, Ken endured more setbacks. When does the fun begin again!?! At first, his pain medication made him hallucinate. Ken would "see smoke and blurred images in front of my eyes" and could not get a good nights sleep. He would have good and bad days, never knowing what to expect. Throughout all this, Ken was still adamant about fulfilling his teaching duties, rejoining the lecture circuit and finishing up his textbook. His doctors have asked him to slow down, which for a hard-charging go-getter is hard advice to follow. Ken will begin his second round of chemotherapy on August 7.

Ken is very concerned about the effects his tumor and treatments have had on his appearance. As a speaker, businessman and teacher, his physical appearance is very important. Ken is scheduled to return to teaching classes at Northwestern University, Kellogg Graduate School of Managment and IIT's Stuart Graduate of Business five times a week in mid-September. He feels like he can summon the energy from within, the energy which all his life allowed him to exercise his mind and body at warp speed. Ken was just hitting his stride financially, and he is angry that he may not reach all of his goals because of disease, which he knows was preventable.

"I was at the top of my game. I was writing books, teaching students, running a business, consulting on the lecture tour. Last year was my most successful, personally, professionally and financially." These days he has to turn down away appearances because of his illness and the follow up treatments. His health requires his family's constant attention. Ken is convinced that he will beat the cancer and "be one for the books."

** POSTED AUGUST 18, 1997 **

Mr. Kenneth Rolnicki passed away on January 20, 1999