Three thousand miles northwest of Newark and nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Delaware, I've become a Blue Hen cheerleader.
In my position as public relations coordinator and prostate cancer marketing specialist at Northwest Hospital in Seattle, I recently had the rare good fortune to meet another former Blue Hen, Lee Elia, AS '60. I've spent the better part of this summer and fall singing his praises, and I know I'll be talking about him for years to come.
Seattle Mariners' hitting coach and former UD varsity baseball player (1958) and freshman running back (1957), Lee Elia was diagnosed with prostate cancer last spring. It is devastating news for any man, but for Lee, 60, the diagnosis was especially frightening.
Just a decade ago, prostate cancer took his father's life. "I can't tell you how hard that was, to see my father who was always a big, strong, healthy man go through that," Lee says. "By the time the prostate cancer was done, it was awful; he was weak, emaciated. No one should have to die that way. It just breaks your heart."
After his own diagnosis, Lee was determined. He wasn't going to let prostate cancer win again.
The good news in Lee Elia's diagnosis was that doctors found the disease early. An annual exam revealed the problem before there were any outward symptoms of prostate cancer. Usually by the time symptoms appear, the cancer has spread and is very difficult to treat. With early diagnosis, Lee knew he had several treatment options available to him.
"Right away, I started calling sports guys I knew and physicians all around the country. I heard about different treatments and side effects," Lee says. "Then, I heard about this seed procedure at Northwest and everything I heard was very good." Northwest Hospital physicians were the first in the nation to perform an outpatient procedure that uses ultrasound imaging to guide the precise placement of radioactive seeds around the tumor.
I met Lee for the first time just a few weeks before his treatment. One of the first things he said to me was, "My wife, Priscilla, and I don't want to make a big deal of this. We just want to get me better and get rid of this cancer. That's all." Although I was asking him to use his status as a coach for the Seattle Mariners and be a voice for prostate cancer awareness, I respected his decision. Both Lee and I lost our fathers to cancer. We both understood that his responsibility was to himself and his family. Getting rid of the cancer and getting back to normal were his greatest goals. The awareness campaign I had envisioned would not be happening.
With business out of the way that day, Lee and
I chatted about baseball. Here I was talking to a man who wears a Philadelphia Phillies World Series ring (1980) and who has 36 years' experience in professional baseball, so I knew I was out of my depth. I stretched my thimbleful of knowledge about the game by asking about his days managing the Phillies. The only thing I had to offer to the conversation was that I grew up in Delaware and had seen a few games with my dad. Although baseball was clearly not common ground for us, Lee and I quickly realized there was plenty
between us. Both of us had attended the University of Delaware and were proud of our Blue Hen heritage. Our fathers both died from cancer. We were both East Coast "kids" grown up and working in Seattle.
From the start, Lee impressed me as a loyal, genuine, hard-working guy with a sense of humor. He was worried about his cancer, but he took time to share a few of his baseball stories with me and to find something to laugh about. It was a gift to talk with him. His attitude, his mannerisms and his accent all reminded me of my friends and family back in northern Delaware- people I miss seeing every day.
I'm not sure exactly what made Lee and me connect, whether it was mutual respect, common experiences or simply having attended the same now-far-away University. Whatever it was, I'm grateful because I believe it was that sense of connection that motivated our eventual partnership.
Lee returned to my office not long after our first conversation, shrugged and said simply, "Let's do it. Let's go ahead and do that campaign you were talking about." He had thought it over and he was convinced. Doing the prostate cancer awareness campaign might help save men's lives. It might help men learn from his experience. It might save them from going through what his father did, or from losing their own fathers to prostate cancer.
He took that message to the Mariners' managers and players and convinced them to join him in the prostate cancer awareness campaign. Players such as Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Joey Cora and Dan Wilson, who could easily command millions of dollars for a TV spot, volunteered their time. They appeared with Lee on camera with the message, "Get Tested! Stay In The Game!," out of admiration and affection for "Uncle Lee."
During September, National Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, the television spot and several news reports about prostate cancer treatment at Northwest Hospital aired on the ABC-TV affiliate in Seattle, KOMO. Lee's message of awareness, "Get tested! Stay in the game!," reached 85 percent of the Seattle television market- more than 2.8 million adults. Calls to Northwest Hospital's toll-free, prostate cancer awareness line (888-NWH-SEED) and visits to our web site (www.prostatecancer.org) rose dramatically while the campaign was airing, providing additional in-depth information about prostate cancer to thousands of people in the region.
Lee's decision to do the campaign has been rewarded by the fact that he reached so many people, affecting their lives in a positive way. "An awful lot of people have come up to me and said, 'It's a good thing you're doing. You helped remove the stigma from this disease,'" says Lee. "People have been so supportive. I really feel like the people in Seattle care about us."
In September, the Seattle Mariners clinched the American League West championship for the second time. Just a
few days later, as the prostate cancer awareness campaign was drawing to a close, Lee Elia's physicians gave him the news he'd anxiously been awaiting since his treatment in July. His PSA blood test reading dropped to zero, indicating that the prostate cancer is gone.
[The PSA or prostate specific antigen test identifies a protein that is elevated in
the prostate gland when there is a problem.The test is then followed up with ultrasound and/or a biopsy.]
Lee announced this fall
that he's leaving the Mariners and a full-time career in professional baseball. "The people in Seattle are great, but I miss my family," Lee says. "I'm going home to Priscilla and our daughter, Ashley, in Florida. She's 8 years old. I'd like to be there for her, instead of being on the road all the time."
For my part, I'm sad to see "Uncle Lee" leave Seattle but delighted that he's going to enjoy his good health with his family. Although I know he'll be happy in Florida, I'll miss hearing Lee's funny baseball stories and his "we can get it done" attitude about everything. And, I will always be grateful for his commitment to raising prostate cancer awareness.