The Fight of My Life

Updated: Jun 25, 2020


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| This is the 418th 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 l