Fighting to live and teaching strength
The sweltering and bipolar late summer weather patterns in Minnesota took a soggy turn during the Steele County Fair last August. On that Thursday night, the skies began to quickly reveal ominous clouds and brought rains that were so torrential that it left a river of water flowing through the fairgrounds and sent people scattering for cover.
The next day, clouds had gathered and another dark storm was on the personal horizon for St. Mary’s physical education teacher, Terri Grose.
“In my abdomen area, I was feeling off,” said Grose. “I was feeling like I was eight months pregnant.”
Her stomach area had become distended and she had not been able to eat or drink very much. When she would walk, her stomach would hurt. She decided to consult with her family physician and friend, Dr. Diane Wallner.
With an initial meeting, it was thought perhaps that there was a gall bladder problem and Wallner ordered an ultra sound. Grose was then called into the office and informed that it was not a gall bladder problem, and was, in fact, very serious.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Grose said. “Aug. 19, 2016, I had seen my family doctor, Diane Wallner, and she was ordering blood tests and a CT-scan.”
It didn’t take long for Wallner to get the results, but sharing those results with a good friend took some thought. Laying a solid foundation for receiving news of this kind, Wallner decided to call Jodi Callister who has been with Grose for 22 years. The doctor was creating a support system before delivering the catastrophic news to Grose.
Terri Grose is an Owatonna girl, born and bred. She left Minnesota only briefly to attend and graduate from The University of Wisconsin – La Crosse. She did her student teaching for six months at Rochester and then back home to Owatonna where she replanted herself and found a job teaching at St. Mary’s. She held that position as a physical education teacher for 37 years.
She is all about home; all about stability and all about family. As a physical education teacher, she is tough as nails, but the news that was forthcoming would alter everything she had learned about life.
Callister, who received the initial call, said, “I was leaving work and noticed that Diane (Wallner) had called my cellphone. She doesn’t just call me out of the blue for anything, so I called her back and that’s when she told me that Terri had ovarian cancer.”
Through her tears, Wallner delivered the message to Callister and they both knew that the one they loved was going to have to be the next to know.
“I said, what is it,” Callister recounted. “And she said, ‘It’s bad.’ I asked, ‘how bad?’ And she said, ‘It’s the worst.’”
Wallner then informed Callister that the prognosis was two more years of life. “I said, OK, so you’re saying that in two years, I’m going to lose her,” Callister said. “Yes, she said.
“It’s so surreal that you don’t have time to process it.”
The doctor hung up and sitting there in the car, Callister was left in a quagmire of thoughts and fears. She was numb and paralyzed as to making a move or contemplating a next step.
The ringing of her cellphone broke through the silence and she received a call back from another doctor who said that the cancer was stage C-3 rather than stage four which was initially diagnosed. The doctor also said that there have been a lot of advancements over the last few years. The clouds parted momentarily as the new prognosis offered a ray of hope.
Callister asked Wallner to be the one to tell Grose about the results and assured her that she would be there for support after the punch had landed.
“Diane then called me,” Grose said. “She said, I have your results back and then she said, ‘you have ovarian cancer.’
“I said, ‘no’ and she said, ‘you do,’ and we both were crying. I said, Di, I don’t want to die. She said, ‘you’re not going to.’ That was pretty much it. And Jodi came into the doorway and I said, ‘I have cancer,’ and she said (in a broken whisper), ‘I know.’
The women then faced this challenge head on as they had many others in the past 22 years. They discussed the diagnosis and then began the battle plan and the next steps that were needed to conquer the cancer. The questions still lingered as to how far advanced the cancer was, and the fear was an ever-present nemesis as to whether it was treatable.
“I have five sisters,” said Grose. “After my mom died, I was kind of the glue that held the family together, and so I had the fear of not makin’ it.”
Grose, even in contemplating her own situation, put the feelings and needs of everyone else above her own. She was more worried for everyone around her and how they would handle it.
The progression of the steps to healing began quickly as surgery was planned for Aug. 29. The surgeon who consulted with both Grose and Callister explained that he would determine during surgery, if he would be able to get 99.9 percent of the cancer, the operation would continue as planned. If they were not able to get that much of it, they would then suspend the procedure and begin chemo treatments. Surgery would then be set for a later date.
The surgeon was able to successfully complete the surgery that day and he did a complete D&C. One of the tumors taken was the size of a softball. Callister explained that during the nine-hour surgery, they additionally took Grose’s spleen, her appendix, a foot of her colon, her omentum, a portion of her stomach, a few layers of diaphragm, and six of the 33 lymph nodes.
Further complications had arisen after surgery where Grose’s blood was not clotting and the journey became very dark and critical as they almost lost her there in ICU. Between 10:30 p.m. and 4 a.m. she had received 22 units of blood product by way of multiple transfusions.
A day after surgery and Grose was beginning to stabilize.
The doctor deemed the surgery a success and four weeks later, Grose began chemo treatments. On her follow-up after final chemo in February she was declared “cancer free.”
Grose and Callister have set a goal to walk together as survivors at next years From The Heart Run/Walk.
They explained that they were overwhelmed with the events of last Saturday’s race/walk and were so thankful for the outpouring of support of the people and the organization.
“They are an inspiration,” Grose said. “They are just a wonderful group of people. I was honored that I was selected and chosen as one of the recipients for From The Heart. It’s an honor to know that the committee is backing you and helping you. I’m speechless.”
Coming to the end of this chapter, Grose reflected on the experience. “You’d never think that this journey would do so much for you,” she said. “You learn a lot of patience, you learn a lot of understanding, and you can never take for granted the caring. And you learn to take one day at a time.”
Many have spouted that cliché’ while healthy, but it was in the adversity that Grose has learned to live in that moment as she offers advice for those facing similar battles.
“You take life for granted and you have to quit doing that,” she said. “Taking one day at a time, and us four (From the Heart honorees) this year, we’ll make it. Just be positive and strong and take advantage of all the support.”
And just perhaps, St. Mary’s needs to keep that physical education job open just a bit longer as Terri Grose is beating the odds.