On February 19, 2015, life changed in an instant for Gale Zellweger. It was the day he was diagnosed with stage four prostate cancer.
“Cancer is a traumatic experience,” Gale said. “When the doctor says you have stage four cancer, you fall through the floor. I didn’t want to go through treatment in a place where I would just be a number. Instead, I was able to receive treatment at St. Anthony, and it was like being at home.”
A retired science teacher for Glidden-Ralston High School, Gale spent his whole life at the gym. He played football at Central College in Pella and held various coaching positions in Clinton, Chicago, Ames and Clarion before becoming a stockbroker for 25 years. He ended up teaching again at Glidden-Ralston in 2007 after marrying his wife of 14 years, Lorrie, and settling in Scranton. Together, they have five kids, 10 grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
A wellness check-up in November 2014 revealed high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels for Gale. From there, he was referred to Urologist Garrett Korrect, M.D., in Ames who confirmed the cancer and determined surgery was not an option, as the cancer had aggressively spread to his lymph nodes.
“The doctor told me I needed to begin treatment immediately, but I didn’t want to miss any school,” Gale said. “They gave me the option of where I would receive radiation treatment, and I was thankful to have St. Anthony as a choice, so close to home. On June 9th, I began the drive to Carroll on my motorcycle.”
But on his way to his first radiation treatment, Gale was faced with another obstacle when a deer ran into him, causing a life-threatening accident. He was taken to the Greene County Medical Center before being flown to Iowa Methodist Medical Center where he spent the next month and a half. Gale had broken his back, neck, scapula and ankle, and suffered a concussion.
“God knew he [Gale] would need a caregiver,” Lorrie said, jokingly. “Between cancer and a motorcycle accident, I wonder why he picked me. It was pretty amazing that we found each other.”
“I didn’t think I was going to make it through the first weekend,” Gale said. “But the Iowa medical community is incredible. Within three hours of the accident near Ralston, I was in Des Moines with access to a team of doctors.”
However, Gale was in critical condition.
“One wrong turn and he could have severed his spinal cord,” Lorrie said. “We were under the pressure of time. Luckily, Gale was able to get into surgery within 48 hours.”
After the intense surgeries to repair his body from the auto accident, Gale was released from Methodist a month later. The following week, he began radiation treatment under the care of Dr. Ling, now retired St. Anthony Radiation Oncologist. He arrived at St. Anthony in a full body brace, neck brace, cast and both arms in slings.
Five days a week for nine weeks, Lorrie, family, friends, and neighbors pitched in to transport Gale to his appointments at St. Anthony. Radiation treatment combined with Lupron injections every six months to keep the body from producing testosterone was used to battle the deadly disease.
“The staff at St. Anthony took charge of my care,” said Gale, who was even cared for by one of his former students, Katie Nelson, RN, BSN, OCN. “If you see someone every day, you get to know them well. The nurses became not only people that took care of me, but a God-send. There were days that if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. I wanted the staff to know that I felt blessed, and that I trusted them. Why spend time crying? Let’s make some jokes!”
By August, Gale continued to persevere. He returned to teach, wearing a back brace and neck brace, and endured multiple shoulder surgeries after the accident.
“The cancer treatment was awesome and effective, as it destroyed the cancer cells. But, destroying so many cells also presents other problems with organs and the digestive tract,” Lorrie said. “Without testosterone to rebuild the body, the recovery from the surgeries was a bigger hurdle.”
While Gale cannot say he’s in remission yet, his prognosis is looking good. He continues to see Dr. Korrect on a quarterly basis, Family Physician Shaun Quam, D.O., of the McFarland Clinic for a PSA test every three months, and Radiation Oncologist Randal Hess, M.D., St. Anthony, on a semi-annual basis.
Through his experience, Gale appreciates that he was able to receive care close to home – and is passionate about how many other cancer patients St. Anthony will be able to assist with the new cancer center set to open in 2020.
“I feel so blessed to have access to the care we have in Carroll. With the new cancer center, we are going to have a world-class facility in west central Iowa, where more patients will be able to get personal care minutes, rather than hours, from home,” Gale said. “This center will take the best of technology and match it with the best of people – good, hard-working, down home Iowa folks – there can’t be any better care than that.”
Gale showed his support earlier this spring, by sharing his story at the St. Anthony Cancer Center groundbreaking event on April 23rd.
And through it all, the Zellwegers have learned one important life lesson.
“We enjoy whatever we can in the moment,” Lorrie said. “We spend our energy keeping up with the grandkids and know that our time with them is precious.”
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