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Canada

Ordeal of a 'Human Zipper': For Randy Tieman, it's been a long fight

This story by David Johnston was first published in the Montreal Gazette on Nov. 20, 1996.

Scary thing about cancer. You can eat like a horse one day, then discover you’ve lost four pounds the next. Randy Tieman didn’t know he had Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymph cells, when he returned from a working trip to Florida in April of last year. But he knew something was wrong.

Although he was eating well, he was feverish, anemic, and prone to vomiting.

Doctors in Montreal told the 42-year-old sports broadcaster with CFCF Pulse News he had stage-4 cancer, the most advanced of the four clinical stages. ”There is no stage 5,” said Tieman.

He entered chemotherapy. After 12 weeks of treatment, his cancer disappeared completely. He returned to work last fall. And on the first anniversary last April of the beginning of his battle against cancer, Tieman took his wife and three young children on a vacation to Lake George, N.Y.

They were going to celebrate. But the morning after they arrived, Tieman fell into a coma. Meningitis. Doctors told his wife, Liane, he was probably going to die, and that if he didn’t wake up out of his coma by the following morning, he’d be a vegetable for life.

Tieman woke up two days later, on a Friday evening, feeling fine, and by Sunday was sitting up in his hospital bed, sipping a Coke and watching the Masters golf tournament on television.

He’d beaten cancer, and come back from a point where life intersects with death. A month later, Tieman was back at work, covering an Expos game at the Olympic Stadium. He suffered some chest pains, went to the hospital, and learned five of the arteries around his heart were blocked 75 to 100 per cent.

On May 21, he had a quintuple-bypass operation.

And now he’s back playing hockey again, every Monday night for 90 minutes, with some buddies at Lower Canada College. His complete recovery from three serious health setbacks in less than 18 months is an inspiration to anyone battling a serious medical condition, particularly in view of how doctors say depression and fear are common features of the recovery stage of illness, notably heart disease.

”The doctors told me to go out and live a normal life,” said Tieman. ”They said, ‘Do what you want.’ So I did. I went out and started playing hockey again.”

Randy Tieman heads to the dressing room with the guys after hockey at Lower Canada College on Nov. 19, 1996. Allen McInnis / MONwp

Tieman played his first game back at LCC on Nov. 11, and it didn’t take long for one player to dub him the Human Zipper. Another called him Mr. Velcro. You’d know why, if you were to see Tieman dressed only in his birthday suit.

As a result of his bypass operation, he has an 18-inch scar down the centre of his chest, a 7-inch scar along the right side of his neck and an S-shaped, 36-inch scar along the inside of his left leg. He also has a 14-inch scar on the left side of his stomach from a Hodgkins-related operation to remove his spleen, and a 3-inch scar on the right side of his upper chest from his chemotherapy program. Put those scars end to end and they stand 6 feet, 6 inches, 8 inches taller than Tieman.

A native of Exeter, Ont., 50 kilometres north of London, Tieman came to Montreal 13 years ago, starting as a sports broadcaster with CFCF radio, and moving months later to Pulse. He’s pretty much the same guy off-camera as you see on-camera: an upbeat, jocular jock with a gift for the gab. ”I’m an easy-going, optimistic, smile-at-life kind of person,” said Tieman. ”But it’s hard to be that when you’re not feeling well.”

Tieman discovered he had cancer in April of last year after returning from the Expos’ training camp in Florida. The Hodgkin’s had polluted his blood; his spleen, a filter, couldn’t cope, swelling to eight times its normal size before its removal. Every second Tuesday morning, he visited the Jewish General Hospital and was fed drugs from two bags and 15 needles. He lost his hair and his toenails, suffered terrible stomach cramps and endured other chemo-related pain. But he overcame Stage-4 cancer, and was starting to feel well again when he took his family last April to Lake George.

The morning they left on vacation, Tieman felt a little tired. But upon arrival in Lake George, he was able to play with his children in the indoor pool of their hotel. In the evening he had drinks with his wife and another couple, also with three young children, who had accompanied them on the trip. Tieman and his wife went to bed shortly before midnight.

”I woke up at 4 a.m.,” said Tieman, ”and I had this headache. It was like somebody had shot me right between the eyes. So I did what was apparently a stupid thing to do, as I found out later. I took a shower. If you have meningitis or the start of something like that, you don’t go have a shower. That’s what I was told. It just fuels it. It’s like throwing gasoline on a fire, apparently.

”Finally, it was about 7:30 and there was a park across the street from the hotel. My wife and my friends and their kids said, ‘Look, why don’t you just lie down. We’ll take the kids over to the park.’ And they left. And I lay down. And my wife, for some reason, just felt something was wrong and was at the park for three, four minutes and told her friends, ‘I have to go back.’ ”

Liane recalls: ”I was worried when I left the hotel room because Randy is not a complainer and he had a real bad headache and he was complaining about it. That morning was different; I don’t know how to describe it. When I went back to the hotel, he was just barely conscious. He’d taken such a turn for the worse in five minutes, it was incredible.”

She phoned 911. An ambulance came. Tieman was in a coma on arrival at the local hospital. His lungs had collapsed. He was placed on life support. This was early on a Wednesday morning.

”The doctors told me he was probably going to die,” said Liane, ”to the point where they told me to call his mom and dad in Exeter. Which I did. At 10 p.m., the doctor in charge phoned into the hospital. He asked to speak to me. A priest came in. The doctor said if Randy didn’t come out of it within 24 hours – by the following morning, in other words – he’d be a vegetable. The priest and I prayed in the room next to Randy’s. I was worried if Randy woke up and saw a priest in his room, he’d have a heart attack. The last thing he remembered was taking a shower.”

Late Friday evening, Tieman opened his eyes.

”Funny,” he recalled, ”I didn’t feel that bad. Literally every inch of my body had a tube plugged in it. I had this thing in my throat; I was on a respirator. I was tied down. But I couldn’t grasp what was going on. I remember being scared, but I was wondering what was going on. Why’s my mum and dad there? Why’s my brother there? Stuff like that. I tried to talk, but I couldn’t talk. And everybody’s yelling, ‘He’s awake! He’s awake!’ And doctors come running in.

”I was trying to say, ‘I’m worried.’ And they were all kind of looking at me because I guess it looked like I was trying to say, ‘I’m horny.’

”My wife laughed, and we laugh about it now. By Monday morning I was perfectly 100-per-cent fine. It was like nothing had happened to me. The doctor who saved my life came in to see me. Before he said anything else his exact words were: ‘You’re a f—ing miracle.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ I didn’t know what else to say.”

An ambulance came from Plattsburgh and drove Tieman directly from Lake George to the Jewish General in Montreal, where he spent another week. Two weeks after his discharge, Tieman suffered chest pains on a Saturday night outside the Expos dressing room at the Olympic Stadium.

”I had this three-minute pain in front of the dressing room. It just ran up my arm. It’s like a pressure thing. It’s not a sharp, sharp pain, but it hurts. The cameraman had his truck there. He drove me to the parking lot where I had my car. And I drove myself to the hospital. I parked the car in the lot of the Jewish and had another mild attack on the way to the emergency. I walked in and one of the nurses looked at me and said, ‘Again?’ They hooked me up to some gadgets and the doctor said, ‘It sounds like you’ve had an angina attack.’ So it was back up to intensive care. After tests they found I had one artery blocked 100 per cent, two blocked 95 per cent and two blocked 75 per cent.”

Doctors operated May 21. Things went badly. While attempting to insert a catheter into Tieman’s jugular vein and run it down into his heart, Tieman’s carotid artery perforated, springing a leak of oxygenated blood. This forced surgeons to abort the bypass operation in order to do an emergency repair of the carotid. Doctors stitched Tieman’s neck closed and waited until the next day to see if he’d suffered any brain damage from the blood loss to the brain. He hadn’t. Doctors proceeded with the bypass procedure. The operation was a success.

”The scariest thing was the meningitis,” said Tieman. ”Especially for my family. The heart thing was just frustrating. The cancer, it’s funny. The cancer was serious, but you knew what you had to deal with, and you hoped they had made the proper diagnosis. And chemotherapy is no fun; trust me on that. And I got lucky. The staff at the Jewish oncology department is first-rate. They cured me. I like to think the power of positive thinking had something to do with it, along with the techniques of modern medicine, of course.”

Liane thinks positive thinking had a lot to do with her husband’s happy outcome. ”I’d like to stress to people the need to be hopeful and positive,” she said. ”Randy never felt sorry for himself, not once. He was always very hopeful and positive and I really believe that helps. The idea is not to lose hope. But it takes time. It’s really only been in the last couple of weeks that he’s felt 100 per cent again. If you didn’t see Randy’s scars, you wouldn’t know anything.”

But the scars are there, both physical and emotional. ” It just about broke my heart,” says Liane. ”I still find it very hard to talk about.” The whole ordeal was also very hard on the couple’s three children – Gabrielle, Jesse and Dennis, now aged 6, 5 and 3.

”For me, the scars are nothing compared to being dead,” says Liane. ”Randy is sort of like their favorite teddy bear. It doesn’t matter if his ears have been ripped off and sewn back on a hundred times. He’s still their favorite.”

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