Thankful to God for days he has

Johnny Oates, former Orioles manager, leans on his faith and family as he is treated for an aggressive form of brain cancer.

February 15, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MATOACA, Va. - In the days after he resigned as manager of the Texas Rangers last May, Johnny Oates would sun himself on the scenic waterfront of his rural Virginia home and wonder about his future.

His managerial credentials were solid, so there surely would be other chances to guide a major-league team to the World Series, and the rare opportunity to be home in the summer with his wife, near his grown kids and his two young grandsons, quickly took the sting out of an unhappy ending in Texas.

Oates, after 35 years in the high-stress caldron of professional baseball, had found something even better than a world championship ring. He had found a contentment he wasn't sure would be waiting for him outside the game.

Maybe that's why it all seems so unfair.

Five months later, doctors told Oates he had a stage four brain tumor - a particularly aggressive form of cancer known as glioblastoma multiforme - and the concept of inner peace took on a whole new significance.

He had most of the tumor removed in November, but the chances of a complete recovery are small. The likelihood of a recurrence is nearly 100 percent.

Oates and his family have spent the past three months coming to grips with that frightening prognosis. It is not a pretty picture, and yet Oates - held closely by his family and his strong Christian beliefs - seems determined to make the rest of his life a beautiful illustration of the power of faith.

"Everybody on this Earth is going to die, and nobody knows when," Oates said. "Whatever time I have left, whether it be four months, 14 months or four years, I want it to mean something."

This is no battlefield conversion. Oates grew up in a churchgoing family and became a committed Christian during a chapel service at the New York Yankees spring training camp in 1983. He could not have imagined how much that would mean to him 18 years later when a doctor walked into the examination room with an X-ray and some very disturbing news.

The diagnosis

The multiforme tumor is one of the most resistant to conventional medical treatment because it almost always grows back after surgery and radiation therapy.

"It's not a matter of if it comes back, but when," said Oates.

He consulted with specialists in nearby Richmond, but was steered to brain cancer pioneer Dr. Henry Brem of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Brem performed surgery Nov. 20 to remove as much of the tumor as possible and insert chemotherapy wafers into the brain to fight the cancer.

Since then, Oates has completed a course of radiation therapy in Richmond and cleared one major hurdle. His first two-month radiological examination since the surgery, Feb. 1, showed no new tumor growth.

He and his wife, Gloria, who were high school sweethearts, hope April 1 will come and go the same way.

"It's a journey," said Gloria Oates, as she lovingly massaged her husband's partially bald scalp. "I got something from the American Brain Tumor Association that said, `This is your new normal life.' That's how you have to look at it."

The cancer has taken a toll. Oates has lost the hair on the right side of his head, the result of radiation treatment and surgery. He has lost much of the strength in his left hand because the tumor was near the area of the brain that controls motor skills.

Otherwise, he said he has experienced surprisingly little pain and discomfort, except for the lingering fatigue that follows a course of radiation therapy.

He looks like he's been in a fight, and he has, but he clearly is not beaten. There is a twinkle in his eye as he ponders his daughter Jenny's coming wedding in August, or the pending arrival of a third grandchild (to son Andy, and his wife, Susannah) in October.

Even in this seemingly dark time, Oates talks like a man with a bright future, and it is not because he is fooling himself.

"He knows he has a malignant tumor," said Brem. "I don't think he has any false illusions about his future, but I don't think anyone can predict the future for an individual person."

Some patients survive only a few months, but the wafer therapy and other advanced forms of treatment are keeping others alive for years. Oates picked the right doctor and hospital. Brem teamed with Massachusetts Institute of Technology bioengineer Robert Langer to develop the chemotherapy wafers, and Hopkins is a leading research hospital in the battle against brain cancer.

It is one of two national brain tumor testing centers (the other is at the University of California, San Francisco) that coordinate clinical trials on an array of possible treatments. If the tumor recurs, as it almost certainly will, Oates will have options.

"What we're able to do at Hopkins is provide new treatments to patients with brain tumors very quickly," Brem said. "There are other treatments available, but he doesn't need that now because he is getting good results.

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