It was early August 2008, near the end of an hourlong class at Birchwood Park Recreation Center in Palatine, when Randy Visina, my tai chi instructor and a pillar of fitness and wellness, felt faint.
He finally had to sit down. I moved up front to lead the class, as Visina called out corrections to my slow-motion arm and leg movements, and body twists.
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Aug. 10 was the last day I saw him at Birchwood. After that, the tai chi course was canceled without explanation and Visina disappeared from teaching.
Randy Visina, it turned out, was fighting for his life. He had heart trouble, a potentially deadly staph infection and acute myeloid leukemia. Yet he survived, returning in March 2010 to teach tai chi in Morton Grove, where I rejoined his class.
Ironically, Visina's successor at the Palatine Park District, Scott Garske, was once near death as well, after being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1988.
Both Visina and Garske credit tai chi as having played a role in their survival.
'Only 1 in 10,000 survive what I had'
Visina, 43, grew up in Park Ridge. In 1984 he saw "The Karate Kid" and knew he'd found his future. He became accomplished in several martial arts and Eastern disciplines, as well as becoming an accomplished drummer.
Earlier in summer 2008 Visina persistently felt sick, like he had the flu. One day while teaching a yoga class outdoors barefoot, he cut his right foot. By August, his foot was painfully swollen. During a visit to his aunt in Wisconsin Rapids he saw a doctor who immediately sent him to the hospital in Marshfield, Wis., about 35 miles away.
There, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia, and a staph infection that would kill him within a week if left untreated. Visina began suffering from tachycardia, or elevated heart beat, and his resting heart rate rose to about 165 beats per minute.
"All of a sudden I was fighting for my life with little to no hope for survival," Visina said. "Eighty percent of my blood was already cancer cells."
Despite that, the staph infection was the priority. If his doctors could not cure it, there would be no use for cancer treatments.
The prognosis couldn't have been more depressing. Visina was given three months to live only if they could rid him of the staph infection.
"Only 1 in 10,000 survive what I had," Visina said. Someone gave him a will to fill out. He refused to complete it, telling himself this was all a dream.
Doctors eventually arrested the staph infection in Visina's right foot, but could not eliminate infections that had developed throughout his body. Doctors amputated two toes, and thought they might have to take part of his right leg.
The leg was saved, but his worst days were still ahead.
Western medicine, Eastern tradition
Many remember Aug. 8, 1988, as the day the lights went on at Wrigley Field. For Scott Garske, it was the day he collapsed from brain cancer.
Garske, now living in Palatine, was the 33-year-old director of sales and marketing for a hospital software company. That day he was on a sales call at a small hospital in Grinnell, Iowa, about 50 miles east of Des Moines.
Garske stood to leave the meeting when his 6-foot, 3-inch frame corkscrewed to the floor. He was having a grand mal seizure, a severe form of epilepsy.
Back in Chicago, Garske was told he had a malignant brain tumor, and if averages held, he had five years to live. He was issued a timetable, detailing what symptoms he could expect as his life faded away.
Garske, a triathlete, had no intention of learning how to die. Instead, he decided to "hitch my wagon" to tai chi and the related disciplines of ba gua and qi qong -- alongside Western medicine.
Eastern healing arts, Garske often says, are not a panacea, yet he believes those arts, as well as bicycling, helped him reach a cancer-free state. Like Visina, Garske has relied on Western medicine in addition to Eastern tradition, and Garske believes he is still living "because of dedication to my (Eastern arts) practice, modern brain surgery, never giving up and help from a higher power."
His fight has been hellish: six surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and 15 years of daily seizures. The tumor had infiltrated the motor strip in his right frontal lobe, but his oncologist recommended against surgery, as did neurosurgeons Garske consulted. The risk of paralysis was just too great.
But continual seizures were hampering Garske's ability to work, and the anti-seizure medications were ineffective. He eventually found a surgeon at the Mayo Clinic who would operate, and in June 1989 Garske underwent a resection, or partial removal, of a tumor the size of a racquetball.
But Garske's seizures persisted in the left side of his face and neck.
"Most days I would have three to 12 seizures," he wrote. "Unless you live with uncontrolled epilepsy, words cannot describe the ... fear, anxiety and tension (that) accompany daily seizures."
Public seizures were the most embarrassing. People would offer help, pray, call 911. He often could not communicate and just had to wait for the seizure to dissipate.
Garske had to give up his job and could not drive a car.
The tumor started regrowing after the 1989 surgery and in 1994 Garske began to suffer from cluster seizures, or periods of nearly continuous seizures. By the end of 1995, his doctor told him he had one to two years to live, unless he had more surgery or radiation.
Garske's neurosurgeon, now based at the New York University Langone Medical Center, operated in January 1996, but couldn't get the whole tumor. Garske now suffered what he calls a "healing crisis" -- convinced cancer had invaded every part of his body (not true), he believed himself to be dying. For the first time, he openly grieved, and waves of nausea, anxiety and panic washed over him.
Garske's tai chi teacher told him from the Eastern perspective, his energy channels were overflowing and releasing toxic emotions through his tears. The emotional energy in his body, Garske says, was rebalancing.
The following year the cluster seizures returned, and in May 1998, Garske suffered his worst cluster of seizures ever. He was too weak for surgery; instead, he underwent six weeks of radiation treatment in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Garske's spirits rose when his daughter, Abby, was born less than a month after he finished radiation, but subsequently his highly supportive wife "burned out," he says, from coping with his illness and caring for their daughter. The marriage ended in divorce.
By 2003, his strength was the best it had been in 15 years. In February, he underwent an 8½-hour surgery performed by a different neurosurgeon, in San Francisco. This surgeon removed the "hot spot" within the brain tumor that was causing the epilepsy, but again, couldn't get all of the tumor.
Instead of recovering, however, Garske became more impaired, with numbness and paralysis on the left side, and another, disorienting seizure that persisted for four hours. Doctors, perplexed, could not find the cause.
Three weeks later, an alert physical therapist noticed discharge at the surgery site on the right side of Garske's head. It was a staph infection. That night, he had emergency surgery to remove the infected section of bone in his skull.
He followed up with antibiotics, and seven months after that treatment the bone was replaced by a plastic implant. His left side became functional again.
Even more amazing, in May 2003, Garske's MRI showed the tumor was completely gone. His brain had grown healthy tissue to fill in where the tumor had been. Garske was now cancer-free, and seizure-free. He was even cleared to drive again.
There was no medical explanation for the tumor's disappearance and the tissue regeneration.
Place filled with light
In October 2008, after two months in the Marshfield, Wis., hospital, Randy Visina was transferred to Northwestern Memorial in Chicago where a doctor thought he would not survive his first night. The pain was so fierce, Visina contemplated suicide.
Then he had an experience that changed his perspective.
"I must have lost consciousness during the night, because I found myself in a wonderful place filled with light everywhere," he said. "In all ways, it was perfect. Three people were there; two of them being my parents." The third person was familiar yet unidentified.
"They looked beautiful and happy, and I wanted to walk toward them, but felt a tug from behind. Then I was yanked back into my hospital room in severe pain, with doctors all around me trying to revive me. I started screaming, 'Let me die, let me die!' But they wouldn't let me."
Visina believes his parents appeared to encourage him and he decided to fight. Doctors injected him with white blood cells to boost his immune system and on March 18, 2009, he underwent a stem cell transplant, to generate new bone marrow.
When he awoke, doctors, nurses, his brother and a niece, Christina, were there to wish him happy birthday to mark his rebirth. He has been in remission since.
Like taking medicine
Randy Visina and Scott Garske have met just twice, although they have talked on the phone and consider each other friends.
To Visina, tai chi was one component in an arsenal of healing arts that built up "life-force energy" in his system, that helped fight for him, even when he was near death and ready to give up.
He believes his physical fitness, through tai chi and other exercise, played a large role in his survival. His doctors concur, saying his fitness made a big contribution to living through "a cancer I was not supposed to survive."
Visina no longer fears death. Now a Schaumburg resident, he cherishes his relatives and celebrating Western holidays with them. At the Shinnyo-en Japanese Buddhist temple in Elk Grove Village, he is practicing to become a spiritual medium. He said he joined the temple as a complement to his Catholic faith, not as a substitute for it.
"I'm not going to miss out on gifts," he jokes.
For Garske, practicing tai chi helped get him through each day. It helped him feel in control of his life as much as possible. It helped strengthen his will to live in the present, to survive on a day-by-day basis.
"The tai chi is like taking medicine for me," Garske adds. "The daily practice is medicine for the body, mind, and spirit."