With no cure available, a Mayo patient finds comfort in a reunion with a former teacher whose words and encouragement had a lasting impact on his life. With some help from his Mayo physician.
Tim Ruettiger, a gym teacher and wrestling coach in New Lennox, Ill., had no idea what a lasting impression he had made on one of his students, Ron Krasneck.
In 1982, Krasneck was 14 years old when he first met Ruettiger, known as Coach Rudy. Krasneck was slightly built, standing just 4 feet, 6 inches tall. Born with a rare genetic condition linked to cancer, the teenager had undergone multiple orthopedic surgeries to treat bone cancer. But Coach Rudy treated Krasneck just like the rest of the students.
Thirty years later, Mayo's Horacio Asbun, M.D., a surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Florida, learned about Coach Rudy's impact during a conversation back in December 2012, after Krasneck learned that surgery couldn’t cure his advanced gall bladder and liver cancer.
“I couldn’t do anything for him,” says Dr. Asbun, who knew much of Krasneck’s medical journey. Diagnosed as a toddler, his disease ramped up in his late teens. At age 46, Krasneck had survived nine episodes of bone cancer, amputations of a hand and wrist, partial removal of a shoulder/scapula and removal and rebuilding of C2 and C3 vertebrae. He walked with a prosthetic leg, though it was hardly noticeable. He'd had more than 35 major surgeries.
Krasneck had been a Mayo Clinic patient since 2006, when he moved from Illinois to Ocala, Fla. Mary O’Connor, M.D., Orthopedic Surgery, managed much of his care. Elizabeth A. Johnson, M.D., Hematology, supervised his cancer treatment. Krasneck lived independently, about a half-hour's distance from his parents, Ron and Joan. Until 2012, he worked full time. He also wrote and published The Regents of Muran, a fantasy novel available on Amazon and many other websites. And he was writing another novel.
“I told him he had lived a remarkable life,” says Dr. Asbun. “I didn’t know how he accomplished all that he had with the challenges he faced.”
Throughout their conversation about his life and accomplishments, Krasneck repeated, “Coach Rudy would be proud.” Curious, Dr. Asbun asked about Coach Rudy. He heard how Coach Rudy played one-on-one basketball with Krasneck, with the coach on his knees to adjust for the height difference. He heard that Coach Rudy wanted Krasneck to run laps and play sports with the other students. He heard how the other kids picked Krasneck first for teams in gym class, with pride.
With no medical cure to offer, Dr. Asbun wanted to do something for his patient. He asked the family for permission to search for Coach Rudy.
Thanks to the Internet and many telephone calls, Dr. Asbun eventually found Coach Rudy, now a school administrator in Northlake, Ill.
Ruettiger didn’t know anything about the rest of Krasneck’s life or impression he’d made. (Inspiring stories run in the coach’s family. Ruettiger’s brother, Daniel, was the subject of the 1993 film “Rudy.”)
Telephone numbers were exchanged, and Krasneck and Ruettiger talked on the telephone regularly. “They would talk for an hour, often on Sunday evenings,” says Ron Krasneck Sr. “That was their special time together.”
In late summer, Krasneck transferred from his hospital room at Mayo Clinic to the McGraw Center for Caring, a hospice on the Mayo Clinic campus in Florida. Ruettiger came immediately and stayed with Krasneck for four days and nights. Krasneck Sr. recalls one conversation they had about his son’s book. “Coach Rudy asked Ron where he had learned to write so well. Ron told the coach, ‘You said I could do anything. So, I read and studied everything that I could about writing for years.’”
On Aug. 29, 2013, Krasneck died peacefully with his family at his bedside. Ruettiger spoke at a memorial service in family’s longtime hometown of Orland Park, Ill.
The family says they are forever grateful for the great medical care, love and support that was always there for Krasneck at Mayo Clinic. “It was a love affair between the doctors, nurses and Ron and us,” says the elder Krasneck. “Nurses would stop by after work to give Ron hugs and support.”
Dr. O’Connor was among those who delivered hugs and prayers. “As much as we want to, and despite how hard we try, we cannot cure every patient with cancer,” she says. “Our ability to provide comfort and support to those patients may be the most important thing we can do. We never give up caring for them and their families.”