8/20/2014 8:58:00 PM Tess Pfohl, CFHS grad, makes it through surgery; tumor gone, but so is the use of her legs
by Ken Haggerty
Tess Pfohl, 25 year-old graduate from the Cannon Falls High School Class of 2007, made it through three days of surgery over the past week at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. The cancerous tumor that was intertwined with her spine was removed as best as possible, but so was Tess's use of her legs, an outcome Tess knew would happen going into the surgery.
Tess's mother, Gwynne, is a veteran registered nurse at the Cannon Falls hospital. Her father, Bill, is an elementary teacher in Red Wing. The couple lives near Vasa. Tess had just started what she called a dream job working as a hospice care social worker near Alexandria, MN this year. A nagging back pain started in December and January. She had tried to relieve it with stretching, swimming, chiropractic alignment, and a course of steroids and physical therapy as it became worse in March and April. Finally, doctors set up an MRI appointment for her.
On April 28, they found a mass on her spine eight centimeters wide, six centimeters long, and about two centimeters deep. It was wrapped and routed around and through her spine and growing where nerves try to carry out their work. Her ability to walk and have sensation in her abdomen, hips, legs, feet, and bottom were all impaired.
By the middle of May, Mayo doctors in Rochester who specialize in the rare chondroblastic osteosarcoma treatment had identified her problem and given her some options. She chose the more aggressive plan that called for severing her spine and becoming a paraplegic, but offers a better chance of beating the cancer.
The complicated surgery, which involved not only severing the spine and going after the tumor but also transplanting part of her leg bone for stabilizing her spine and moving some muscle to fill in some holes, was spread out over three days and involved dozens of medical professionals.
On Tuesday, a week after surgery began she posted on her Facebook page:
"It's Tess! I. Am. Alive. I'm feeling very lucky to still be breathing this air. After one week, I have a very important update. All three surgeries were successful. First was spine and musculature preparation. Second was tumor removal, which came back clear in margins of any tumor. Third was putting me all back together by joining skin grafts and moving leg bone to use as new supports that will actually grow into my new spine area and skin. One of my surgeons graciously took extra time from an already 20 some hour surgery to sew my Emmanuel tattoo back together. God is and was always with me. Most of all I need time with family now and time to regain such great loss of strength. I'm so exhausted. Please no surprise visits at this time. I haven't even seen myself yet. So much love for all of YOU!"
"Tess has bravely, and unflinchingly, chosen to live as a paraplegic," said her sister, Lynnea Pfohl. "We rejoice that her chances at beating this cancer are good, and have ourselves been blessed to witness her strength and grace as she has handled - beautifully-- the very heavy and absolutely life-altering news that she has been given.
"She is a person who no longer has the use of her legs, but who is daily becoming a better example of grace, faith, and courage, than anyone I've ever had the pleasure of knowing."
Tess has displayed a great attitude throughout the decision making process and the intense chemotherapy in the two months before the surgery. "There is a lot of love here," wrote Tess. "Most peace comes from God and knowing you all will go with me on this journey of not living in fear and rejoicing in all circumstances. Life is beautiful from a wheelchair, too, and I will prove this fact!
"I have been dealt a really crummy hand. And now, immediately after, instead of wallowing or giving up, unimaginable things have come out of the woodwork for me...peace without being fearful, extreme love from those around me, my passion to serve people harder than ever before has grown immensely, and my soul is awakened in ways I didn't think would happen at 25 years old. I am not defeated by this. In fact, I see myself hopefully looking back cured and removed of this cancer years down the road and being THANKFUL for the trials I went through!
"It is exciting to me that if I can be cured of this tumor after it is removed, I am able to live my life and hold a full time job, have a family even (my own children), and regain some normalcy after this huge surgery and health scare. I WILL adapt to life as a paraplegic and I WILL live a great life. Many people have lived a fulfilling life without the use of their legs and I fully intend on being one of those amazing people.
"The main things I need in order to live this life are my arms for hugging and brain for being my own person. Having the use of your legs is a gift, but is not absolutely necessary or required for living a high quality life."
Many people have rallied around Tess. Her older sister, Lynnea, told her the next day after finding out about her paraplegic future that she could live with her and her husband and their three young kids in rural Winona. They immediately drew up plans to remodel the master bedroom and bath into a wheelchair accessible living environment with a private entrance. People have been generous in donating to help defray this remodeling cost.
"I am overwhelmed and grateful by their offer of having me live with them and honestly could not see myself doing rehab and making this life change anywhere else," said Tess. "I hope life allows me to stay as long as possible and I can eventually find work in this area and live my life here."
Pfohl admits she felt feelings of anger as she came to accept and process the reality of her situation, the nausea and hair loss from chemo, and general weakness pre-surgery. "It is unfathomable at times to really understand this reality and I have felt cheated and upset, which is normal," she wrote in the month before the surgery. "I have been told I will go through these valleys but I am still trying to remain positive and trust God's plan for me although it is terrifying and unfair. I know the next year of healing and adjusting to these large changes will be difficult but attainable for me."
Tess was very active before the tumor. She had been a member of State Champion Bomber Dance Teams, was in tennis and musicals as an Honor Roll student at CFHS. A favorite activity was trips to the Boundary Waters with family and friends. Fundraising has taken place to help her purchase an all-terrain trike of sorts designed for paraplegics. Some fundraising efforts have also gone towards this purchase.
On Saturday, August 23, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. a benefit garage sale will be held for Tess and her family at St. Ansgar's Lutheran Church. Support bracelets will be available and a book to sign and write something in for the Pfohls will be set up. Hot dog/chips/pop lunch will be set up. Most items are designated for a free will donation. Call Lauren Stiehl at 507-298-0632 for more information.