April 27, 2011
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Jeff Gudaitis was bulling through the realization he had cancer.
He was fighting through the numbness in his neck, getting past the weaknesses in his voice and body from having his thyroid removed three months earlier.
But he wasn't quite ready for what he faced last month inside a quarantined room at UW Medical Center, across the street from where Friday night the senior's teammates will hold their final dual meet with Washington State at Husky Stadium before the venue's renovation.
Then again, how could anybody have been prepared for this - let alone a recently elite college sprinter, the Huskies' two-time NCAA national finalist?
Gudaitis was diagnosed in December with papillary thyroid cancer. Five days before Christmas, doctors removed his thyroid. And in March, the national finalist a third time in 2008 as a sophomore alternate on Washington's Pac-10-champion 4x100-meter relay team, the member of the fifth-fastest distance medley relay team in UW history in 2009, was in his bed staring at the plastic covering every inch of his hospital room.
He noticed he was set off in a far corner of the building, away from other patients. The multitude of arresting danger signs all over his room declaring "RADIOACTIVE" was hard to ignore, too.
Then doctors from the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance entered.
"They brought in this little aluminum suitcase," Gudaitis told me through his cell phone Tuesday, three months after he first impressed me in person with his resolve and positive outlook past this cruel turn in his life. "It looked like the presidential `football,' you know, the one with all the nuclear codes in it.
"Inside that was a metal pod. It said, `RADIOACTIVE' on it. And inside that was this little pill. One of the doctors goes, `All right. Swallow this as fast as you can. And then we are going to run out of the room.'"
The pill was radioactive iodide. It's a chimney-sweep treatment taken months after thyroid-removal surgery, with the hopes of eradicating remaining cancer from the body. Swallowing that pill made the former Washington state high school champion in the 400 and 200 meters for Tacoma Baptist a radiation beacon. Everything he touched would become radioactive. Nurses would debate in the coming days over whether he even should take a shower, worried that perhaps his radioactivity would flow down the drain and into Seattle's sewage system. (The conclusion ultimately was there no chance of that.) I asked him a question I didn't need a journalism degree to come up with: Weren't you scared?
"Yeah, a little," he said. "I mean, it was kind of nerve wracking seeing all the radioactive signs all over my room, with plastic covering everything."
While his Huskies teammates were preparing for the Stanford Invitational and the rest of the outdoor season, Gudaitis was in isolation for four days. Lying there in the UW Medical Center, across Mountlake Boulevard from Washington's sports complex, he was so close yet so far from his previous life as a top Husky athlete and student.
"It wasn't so bad," he said, with what I have come to learn is his characteristically sunny outlook when everyone else sees clouds. "People could visit - but just only to the door. They couldn't come in the room."
Gudaitis passed the time by reading five magazines, cover to cover. He did crosswords, "and LOTS of TV.".
No texting. No phone. No e-mail or laptop. He must have been one of the world's only 23-year-olds without one of those that week.
"I could only bring stuff I didn't mind leaving behind," he said.
I remembered he told me in January before the radiation treatment that he was looking forward to "peeing green," like an alien. So I asked him if he indeed did.
"No, but I was hoping to," he said, chuckling. "That would have been cool!"
Here's something else that's cool: The UW community is rallying to help Gudaitis.
His medical costs, portions of which are being covered by his family's insurance, are well into six figures. How far? Well, consider the cost of that single, super-secured radioactive pill he took: $60,000.
"Isn't that crazy?" he said.
UW sprints coach Raul Sheen, track strength coach Audra Smith and Falesha Ankton, a Huskies two-time All-American hurdler and sprinter who is in her first season as a UW volunteer sprints coach have spearheaded a fund-raising campaign by selling rubber bracelets in Jeff's honor. Sophomore sprinter Colton Dunn and junior multi-event athlete Jeremy Taiwo designed the purple-and-black bands, which are modeled after star cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong's yellow, Livestrong bracelets sold to benefit the 28 million worldwide diagnosed with cancer.
The bracelets helping Gudaitis have "Let's roll" - what Jeff said to fire himself up immediately before each race - and "Washington" printed in white on the face. The team is asking for a donation of $5 per band. Ankton has been promoting sales on her Facebook page and has been setting up a table in front of Connibear Shellhouse each weeknight from 4:30-6:30 p.m., to sell to other UW athletes coming in for training meals.
The team will be selling them again Friday night at the dual meet with WSU, and at a post-meet gathering of UW track alumni.
"That's pretty cool for the team to do," Gudaitis said. "I had no idea they were doing that."
Ankton was one of the first Huskies to visit Gudaitis inside that radioactive hospital room last month.
"I was super nervous. It was scary looking in there. And he was just sitting there smiling, `Hi Falesha!'" she said. "It took me 20 minutes to inch up the tape (the line in Gudaitis' room visitors could not cross for fear of radiation exposure). But he was just smiling, happy."
Ankton told me the team ordered 400 bracelets. Only 60 remained as of Wednesday morning. Sales have raised $2,500 so far for Gudaitis, and the team is considering ordering a second shipment of bracelets. Students have stopped Ankton on upper campus wanting to buy some.
"It's kinda cool," she said. "We're all thinking about Jeff. He's been very positive throughout this whole thing."
And he's not done yet.
A RETURN TO COMPETITION?
When I met him in January, four weeks following surgery, Gudaitis was philosophical about the apparent end to his track career.
But Tuesday, from his job as a website promoter for his friend's Sunset Auto Wholesale in his hometown of Tacoma ("I had to do something to stay busy while I take time off school," he said), he told me he intends to petition the NCAA this summer for a sixth year of eligibility.
If the NCAA has any heart, any appreciation for what he's gone through, it will grant him a medical-redshirt waiver.
"I feel pretty good. I haven't lost too much weight, but I have lost a lot of muscle mass," said Gudaitis, who has been living at home in DuPont, Wash., and trying to maintain his weight with his mother Maria's smoothies, milkshakes and "da bomb" honey-mustard chicken.
"Doctors say, `Do as much as you feel like doing. If you feel like running 10 miles, run 10 miles. If you feel like you can't make it around the block, then you should probably be calling us.'"
He said he will apply for the extra year of Huskies track "only if I am still fast. I don't want to come back and be dead last."
Ankton thinks he should, no matter what the result. She's already told him that, even though Gudaitis is just a couple of completed core courses away from his economics degree.
"He saw one of the meets on TV a couple of weeks ago and it sparked a little fire in him - like, `That should be me out there,'" the assistant coach said. "He's just so used to being so good, it's his pride. He's nervous it's going to be hard and he won't do as well as he has in the past.
"But I think he should give it a go. With Jeff, since he redshirted last year (because of a foot injury that cost him all of the 2010 track season), he hasn't competed in two full years. For him to just graduate and go on with his life, I think he'd regret not at least trying to come back.
"He was a leader on the team. He is missed. The guys really look up to him. Just having him at practice would make the team 10 times better next year."
Gudaitis has been visiting his team when he's had doctor appointments in Seattle. And he will be in Husky Stadium Friday night when the Huskies run with the Cougars.
"Oh, definitely. I will be there to cheer on my teammates," he said. "I haven't been able to be at any of their meets since indoor season, because they've been traveling so much and with my treatment."
Last Thursday he returned to the weight room for the first time since December, and he has the best lifting buddy in his world. His grandfather, George Gudaitis, took Jeff to the gym at Fort Lewis, the Army installation which is now combined as a joint base with McChord Air Force Base across the freeway from Gudaitis' family home. Grandpa Gudaitis spent 22 years as an Army infantryman and fought in Vietnam before he retired.
"He's 73 years old and he still goes to the gym three times a week," Gudaitis said proudly.
Something tells me that pride is going both ways these days.
"I want to get back in some kind of shape, I just notice the fatigue level is much lower now," Jeff said. "And that's from not having my thyroid anymore."
His doctors are still searching for the mix of medication that will best simulate the thyroid's job, to produce hormones that help the body convert oxygen and calories to energy.
"But I can still get 45s (45-pound weights) on each side of the bar and bench," he said. "As long as I can still do that, I'm happy."
The radioactive treatment has left him with the constant need to hydrate, to lessen the chance of infection in his battered throat. So the Gatorade water bottle his team gave him is one of his most cherished possessions right now.
"Yep, it's about two feet away from me right now," he said from his office at the Tacoma car dealership.
He is getting his blood tested every other week to see if there are signs of the cancer spreading. Early this summer, he will get a full-body scan to determine how much, if any, cancerous cells remain.
A 2008 study of radioactive iodide therapy on more than 1,000 papillary thyroid cancer patients at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan found that within a decade after removal of the thyroid and radioactive treatments, 81 percent survived and most cases of recurring cancer in the neck area were effectively controlled without a relapse.
The last time Gudaitis got a full body scan, right after the surgery, doctors told him his cancer was fortunately centralized in the throat and that there was less cancer in his body than expected.
"Hopefully the radiation does its job, and in three or four months the doctors adjust the medication to where I don't get as fatigued," he said. "If I can still be competitive, I want to do it. I want to come back."
If he can still be competitive?
I've seen him stare down cancer. I've heard him joke about the surgical scar that runs across his neck. Now I've learned about him bulling through radiation and quarantine as if they were just two more training runs.
If drive is all that separates Jeff Gudaitis from a return to track, UW better be clearing a running lane for him for 2012.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.