Lake County Relay for Life to honor local veterinarian - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

Lake County Relay for Life to honor local veterinarian

By MARY GALES ASKREN, Staff Reporter | Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2019 4:47 pm

When Sheryl Heirigs broke her arm, neither she nor her husband imagined the journey that would begin as a result.

In addition to having the bone set, she had a complete physical and persuaded husband Tom to do so as well. The local veterinarian, kept busy not only with his work at Twin Lakes Veterinary Clinic but also with activities related to managing an apartment building, believed himself to be in robust good health.

Instead, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. The healthy blood cells in his bone marrow were being crowded out by plasma cells in which cancer cells had formed.

"We kind of found out about it by accident," he recalled.

A little over a year later, Heirigs will be one of two honorary survivors at the Lake County Relay for Life, which will be held between 5:30-11 p.m. on Friday at the Lake County 4-H grounds. Four-year-old Gabe Gitzen is the other honorary survivor.

Like many cancer survivors, Heirigs' journey has been one through which he walked with the support of his spouse. Sheryl has accompanied him to appointments with his oncologist and stayed in Sioux Falls when he was hospitalized.

When he speaks of the chemo and transplant, he always uses the pronoun "we." He recognizes that while he was diagnosed with cancer, the disease has affected both of them.

"I'd be lost without her," Heirigs said.

Sheryl and Tom have been married for 44 years and have two sons, one who lives in Sioux Falls and one in Kansas City. If the cancer has affected their relationship at all, it's affected the way Tom views his priorities, especially his marriage.

"I guess there's been too much work and not enough being around my wife," he said. "It think it's time to re-evaluate that."

Heirigs feels strongly about this because he knows the phrase "cancer-free" is relatively meaningless with the kind of cancer he has. He doesn't know if he will have another five years or another 15 years.

His family is still coming to terms with both the diagnosis and his pragmatism.

"They were scared to start with. Now they accept it a little more," he shared.

Although he looks well -- in robust good health, in fact -- he admits that he tires more easily than he did before the diagnosis and treatment. He also feels a little older and has had to learn to deal with the pain which is part of the disease. But he doesn't let it slow him down too much.

"It's still 8 to 5, on call when it's your turn," he said. "Some days are longer than they used to be."

Currently, Heirigs is on a maintenance regimen of chemo. While his first round of chemo involved outpatient hospital visits, he now takes pills at home, and his condition is monitored with blood tests.

Getting to this point has involved two rounds of chemo, taking growth hormones, having his bone marrow harvested, and then receiving a transplant of stem cells from his own bone marrow. Through it all, he has continued to work, taking off only a month following the transplant.

The first round of chemo, which started in April 2018, was to attack the cancer that Heirigs described as a kind of bone cancer.

"What they try to do is get the number of bad cells down as low as possible," he indicated.

In his case, the percentage of cancer cells was reduced from 29 percent to 1 percent. In September, he was injected with a growth hormone daily over a period of 10 days. Then, his own bone marrow was harvested over a period of two days.

"They use your own cells so you don't have the rejection problem," he explained.

The next round of chemo not only knocked back the cancer cells but also killed healthy cells.

"That chemo knocks the living crap out of you," he said.

Finally, in November, he received the transplant. While the doctor expected his recovery period to last two months, he was back at work within one month.

"When I left the hospital after the transplant, he was happy," Heirigs reported.

The second round of chemo did have some adverse effects, though. Both his lungs and liver were affected. He also experiences pain that he didn't have prior to the cancer diagnosis.

"It could be a rib. It could be a leg. It could be in my back," he said.

For that, he receives steroids once a week. He also receives a blood transfusion once a week. So far, the combination of chemo, steroids and blood transfusions is working. The blood tests show the number of bad cells which were inevitable as a result of the process used have not increased.

"The longer we can keep it at the one percent, the better chance we have of living longer," Heirigs said.

While he is honored to be a survivor recognized at this year's Relay for Life, he believes the ones who deserve the recognition are those who treat cancer patients, the doctors and nurses who take care of them.

"I may have cancer every day, but I don't think about it every day," Heirigs said. "They think about it every day and do it with a smile -- that's awesome."

The opening ceremony and survivor lap at the Relay for Life begin at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. Kelli Wollmann will provide entertainment at 7 p.m., followed by CC Graham at 7:30 p.m. and Matt Green from 8:15-9:30 p.m.

The luminaria ceremony will be held at 9:30 p.m. The Fight Back ceremony will be held at 10:45 p.m.