Sertich wins fight for life . . . and then there's tennis

May 10, 1993|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Staff Writer

John Sertich maneuvered his blue Nissan Sentra into a parking space beside the row of tennis courts at Truxtun Park in Annapolis last week. The doors swung open, and a group of friends bounded out.

The St. Mary's senior had 10 minutes to kill before warming up for his match against Matt Weinstein of Boys' Latin in No. 1 singles. With his baseball cap turned backward, he sat on the trunk of his car and devoured a couple of vanilla dessert cakes and a large orange soda.

Sertich has regained the look of a healthy teen-ager. He used to wonder if that would ever happen.

As a freshman, Sertich was the Maryland Scholastic Association BB Conference's champion in No. 5 singles. The next season, he lost just two matches despite being shuffled back and forth from No. 2 to No. 3.

A year later, his weight was down 30 pounds, and cancer had spread through his body. Tennis no longer was John Sertich's passion. Staying alive was.

Sertich, who lives in Bowie, had spent the early portion of that summer competing in as many tennis tournaments as he could find. He was ranked 16th among Maryland amateurs in his age group, and with a new coach coming into St. Mary's, he was excited about regaining the MSA title that eluded him as a sophomore.

But by September of 1991, the pain in his lower back that began as an annoying twinge had worsened considerably. One doctor visit led to another. And still another.

He was told to apply heat to the sore area, then ice. He tried muscle relaxers, and heard one diagnosis that said he might have contracted mononucleosis.

"I must have gone to a dozen doctors," Sertich said. "Nothing worked."

A sonogram in November revealed the problem: Cancer was discovered in his left testicle. And the germ-cells were dividing rapidly, moving the disease into the liver, lungs and stomach.

"I was devastated," he said. "It kind of makes you realize that you're not invincible, even though for a period of time, I thought I was."

Sertich was transported by ambulance to Johns Hopkins Hospital, and surgery was performed the next morning. He then was subjected to chemotherapy treatments every three weeks, which lasted five days and left him nauseous and weak. He had sharp pains in his stomach that wouldn't subside for three days, and his only means of relief was to lay on his side, motionless.

"I wouldn't eat for weeks at a time," he said. "I couldn't even keep water down. If you can't keep water down, what's left? I basically would dream about eating."

"It all happened so fast," said his mother, Helen Sertich. "He had a lot of swelling for months and didn't say anything. He started having pain and said something, and within a few days he was in the hospital. The doctors didn't even have to do a biopsy. They could tell by his blood counts that it had spread everywhere."

Sertich didn't need radiation treatments, but with his immune system lowered, he kept returning to Johns Hopkins. Extra precautions had to be taken for something as routine as a cold. If his temperature rose a couple of degrees, he would have to go back for antibiotics.

"My red blood cells were so low, I had no defense. I must have had 20-odd transfusions," he said.

The chemotherapy lasted three months, followed by weekly check-ups that eventually were extended to once every month, then to once every six months. Doctors told him that there was a 95-percent recovery rate for this type of cancer. His life slowly was getting back in order.

"They say with cancer, your outlook is as important as the treatment. And John's outlook was unbelievable," said Helen Sertich. "He wasn't always the most mature child, but he never gave up. He has a lot of faith and that kept him going.

"The doctors still see a little spot when they do his scans, but they feel it's scar tissue behind his liver. He's definitely in remission."

Sertich was back at St. Mary's in March, though nowhere near his former weight of 150 pounds. The chemotherapy had taken away his thick black hair, and he received permission to wear a hat to school to lessen his discomfort.

"He lost hair everywhere," said Helen Sertich. "He and his sister [Angela] made a game of, when his hair was falling out of his head, they were pulling out clumps and making designs in his head."

"He was kind of embarrassed at first," athletic director Carmine Blades said, "but nobody was going to say anything to him about his hair."

Home studies allowed Sertich to complete his junior year. And not only has he returned to the tennis team this spring, but coach Camille Corletta also has him playing No. 1 singles.

"I think he's back up to par," Corletta said. "I was counting on him this year. I talked to him a lot last year, and he showed interest. I was expecting him to be one of the strong players. I wasn't expecting him to be No. 1, though."

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