‘Hope is good medicine’

‘Hope is good medicine’

“The good news is, there is a treadmill.”

Joe Seeley began his first blog post after being diagnosed with leukemia in January 2011 with that optimistic observation.

Seeley was well-known in the Champaign-Urbana community as a usability architect at Human Kinetics, the webmaster and a key team member for the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, a runner and a youth soccer coach. He wrote posts for his blog, Joe’s Blasts, from his diagnosis until his death in October 2012.

His wife Jan Seeley — who has had a career in publishing, first at Human Kinetics and then as publisher of the running magazine Marathon & Beyond, as well as being a co-director of the Illinois Marathon — transformed his writing into a book, “Joe’s Blasts. Facing Leukemia With Courage, Hope, Humor, and Acceptance,” published this month.

Blog PhotoShe divided the blog posts into five parts, covering his initial diagnosis and nine-week hospitalization for his first stem cell transplant; his return home, enjoying training with Jan for a 5K and an annual family vacation to New Hampshire; his relapse and second stem cell transplant; returning home again in remission; and his final months, including a clinical trial that was ultimately unsuccessful.

Family members — Joe’s parents, his three siblings and his older son Jake — wrote introductions to each section. Joe’s oncologist wrote the foreword and a longtime family friend wrote the afterword. The Seeleys’ younger son Paul built the website for the book.

“The people who were closest to the illness the whole time had a unique perspective in terms of giving context to what was going on. The introductions do a lovely job of that,” Jan said.

Joe’s story is compelling even when the ending is known. He wrote in a straightforward, and often humorous, way about his treatment — chemotherapy, blood counts, transfusions, side effects, infections that threaten his compromised immune system and the complicated strategy of determining the most effective way to attack the cancer.

“We got such an inside look at what it’s like to be a patient. Joe really let us see that in graphic detail,” Jan said. “Even though you know the outcome of the book before you even start, in a lot of ways it’s got a lot of hope. Even though Joe passes away, there are a lot of life lessons to be learned about how we impact people. That’s a strong message for us.”

“Sick people walk corridor halls with their IV poles while wearing socks. With my running shoes, I’m a healthy guy with leukemia.”

One of the things that brought hope and a feeling of normalcy was running, or walking when running was too strenuous. In his first few days at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Joe discovered the power of his running clothing. He wrote that when he “wore” a wheelchair, he felt like an invalid. Putting on running shoes had the opposite effect.

Throughout his first hospitalization, Joe ran on a treadmill or walked the maze of corridors on his hospital floor. He reported his mile pace for each workout.

When he developed pneumonia prior to his first transplant, he felt sick and scared, and he went for a walk.

“Walking is my way to fight back. As I’m strolling, then walking, then striding up and down the hall, I have this refrain going through my mind, one word per step: I will beat you. The longer I walk, the stronger I feel. By the end of the walk, I feel practically normal. I have had runs that left me feeling good, but I have never had one that took me from feeling sick to feeling healthy.”

In addition to the details of his treatment, Joe wrote about his experiences with the nursing staff (almost universally good), and his frustrations with the food service and the transport of patients. He complained about the lack of healthful foods on the hospital menu — few whole grains or legumes and far too much salt. He even wrote a blog post with recipes he concocted with what was offered to create more healthful and appetizing meals.

When he returned to the hospital nine months after he was admitted the first time, he found a new page in the menu with many of the items he suggested be included, such as whole wheat waffles, fruit topping, hummus and vegetables, black bean soup and quesadillas on whole wheat tortillas.

He also wrote about the transport system that took patients to other areas of the hospital for procedures and often left them waiting for hours to be returned to their rooms. The hospital initiated a buzzer system for the patients waiting for a transport.

“I think it’s remarkable that the guy is literally fighting for his life, he almost dies before his first transplant, and yet the things he’s writing about end up making lasting changes and making the hospital better for other patients,” Jan said. “No matter what obstacles we’re facing, we can still be a change agent.”

Blog PhotoBefore his diagnosis, Joe had set a goal of running a 5K under 20 minutes in 2011. After his diagnosis, that goal was changed to simply running a 5K. When he returned home following his transplant, Joe and Jan walked together nearly every day. Joe — who held the record for the 800 meters while a member of the Yale University track team — began mixing in running with the walking, and he took the training seriously, reporting in his blog on his interval workouts.

“Those little workouts we did, when he was strong enough to be out walking, were joyous. Even though we were not running that much, it was still really cool,” Jan Seeley said.

“Being an athlete absolutely helped him face this illness and disease,” she said. “Runners understand delayed gratification. Joe was a very patient man anyway. He was very good about not projecting into the future.”

“I believe it’s medically harmful to worry about all the things that could go wrong, and medically helpful to believe in your treatment. Hope is good medicine.”

After Joe’s leukemia returned, while awaiting his second transplant, he amended his 5K goal to finishing, even if he had to walk all of it. Neuropathy in his feet that worsened after his second transplant made it difficult for him to run. But he entered the 2012 Illinois Marathon 5K with the goal of breaking an hour. He walked it with his father Bob, his son Jake and his sister Mara. Despite a fall that scraped his hands and hurt his ankle, he finished in 55:18.

“The price for my first running steps since September was bruised and bloody hands; bruised shoulder, ribs, and knees; a sprained ankle; and a scolding from my doctor.

Worth it!”

“Joe had so many followers and people cheering him on and people who started their day with a cup of coffee and a post from Joe,” Jan Seeley said. “Anybody who has lost a loved one just wants their memory to not die. This is a way of giving Joe’s words some longevity, and I feel good about that.”

 

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news-gazette.com, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

 

Blog PhotoBook launch

Human Kinetics will host a book launch for “Joe’s Blasts” at 6 p.m. Feb. 2. It is open to the public. Those attending should park in the south parking lot and go in the southwest door of the building at 1607 N. Market St., C.

RSVPs are requested and can be made by emailing Jan Seeley at jan.c.seeley@gmail.com.

To order a copy of the book, go to joesblasts.com.

 

Photos: Top: Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon co-director Jan Seeley shows off the book of her late husband Joe's blog posts while he was fighting leukemia. Photo by Rick Danzl/The News-Gazette Middle: Joe Seeley crossing the finish line of the 2012 Presence Health 5K. Bottom: The book jacket for "Joe's Blasts"

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