The retired teacher and three-decade coach for the Wooster Parks and Recreation summer swim program had visited his doctor in Lakeland, Fla. in late September, looking to resolve what ultimately proved to be an exceptionally minor issue in retrospect.
“I was having difficulty with an urinary track issue, so my doctor sent me in for a CAT scan,” said Smucker. “When they looked at the CAT scan of my brain, they said, ‘Hey, you have a problem.’ I had no idea.”
What the scan revealed was a big problem – a tumor growing in his brain. It hadn’t created any apparent difficulties for Smucker to that point, who admitted he was stunned by the report.
“It was a huge shock,” said Smucker. “I had no idea. When they showed me, it was like a golf ball sitting in my brain. They told me I could have waited since it wasn’t causing problems, and felt I could have waited until summer and had it done up north if I wanted. I said no, I want to get it taken care of, so two to three weeks later doctors took out the tumor and I’ve been dealing with that ever since.
“The computer showed it was pushing against the brain and if it kept pushing, it could have affected my brain stem, which is why I had it done. I could have waited, but it might have been a tough situation. Doctors didn’t know how fast it was growing, so that was a big factor, too. When they took it out, it was bigger than when they initially found it.”
The good news: doctors found the tumor was benign once they tested it, but that didn’t mean Smucker’s ordeal was over.
“I never thought I would have a tumor like that and I never thought I would spend time in recovery like I did or have to work on coming back to have full faculties,” said Smucker. “The tumor was off to the side of my brain. It was not connected or intertwined with the brain. It was off to the side pushing the brain over toward the brain stem. I felt I couldn’t wait. If something happened, it could have grown more and I could have had the difficulty of a seizure … or stroke, which could have been devastating.
“It is amazing, modern technology. They put it up on the computer screen and showed me where it was … so we knew what we were dealing with.”
In one sense, the surgery was the easiest aspect of what Smucker has gone through the past eight months.
“They put the skull back in place and I don’t think much of it,” said Smucker. “Fortunately I was never in big pain … and I was fortunate I was able to talk and communicate. I’ve never had a surgery like that, so I felt fortunate to be able to do a lot without a lot of disruption. If not for my legs, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it.”
That is what created much of the issue for Smucker, who spent a little over two weeks in the hospital before moving into a nursing facility near his home for an extended stay.
“The fact my legs weren’t in use for a while is what made it hard,” said Smucker. “It was almost like being paralyzed for a period of time. Luckily I had nursing home insurance, so that paid for a lot of it. I was in a nursing home from the end of October until May 5. I was incapacitated the first part, but then I came around.”
Smucker couldn’t walk initially, using a wheelchair for mobility. He pushed himself, though, graduating to a walker and using that extensively before slowly abandoning that.
“My therapist said I might have to use a cane,” he said. “I can walk anywhere now. I stumble some, but I never used a cane. I went from a walker to just plain walking and I’ve been walking without it since the middle of May. I’m able to get in and out of the car and do what I want now. Now I just need to strengthen my legs more and I’ll be in good shape.
“Therapy ended today (June 12) – she signed off today. The nurse is coming in about 20-30 minutes and she will sign off this week, too. It’s a matter of me getting back to full strength and making sure I don’t lose my balance.”
Smucker is planning to return to the Wooster area in August, but he was hardly without local contact during this ordeal.
“I was always able to communicate and speak (after surgery),” said Smucker. “I didn’t have a cell phone and email, but I got a ton of cards in the mail. It was amazing the number of people visiting in Florida who stopped by to see me when I was in the nursing home to say hi and see how I was doing. Someone was coming in almost every day from home. Wayne County people stopped by and some former teachers and friends we know stopped by, so I saw a lot of people.”
Smucker is staying in touch with the swim team, whether through his granddaughter or coaches Chris Matthew and Rob Harrington. Still, it’s hardly the same after being involved in the daily workings of the team for three decades.
“I read in the paper I’m coming back to the swim program,” laughed Smucker. “Maybe I am – I don’t know. I could have come back this year, but there is a lot of responsibility and a lot of long days, and I don’t know that I would have been ready for that.
“I’ve talked to Rob and Chris on the phone. They’ve called on some little things and I’ve said call me anytime. I never thought I would not be there this summer, but I’m still working with my doctor here and still working in a therapy group. It would have been tough to go up and work with the program this summer because my legs do get tired. I’m playing some golf, chipping and putting. I played Sunday night, but I’m having someone else tee off.
“When I was in the nursing home I saw a lot of people struggling in many ways. I felt fortunate to walk out of there … and feel fortunate to have the freedom to walk. They had some good nurses and physical therapists that worked hard to see that I got to where I am today.
“I’m getting there.”
Published: June 14, 2012