Gophers’ Oakes Fights Leukemia

The day Minnesota pitching coach Todd Oakes started chemotherapy, his mood was optimistic, feisty, determined, energized—and grateful.

“I anticipate being here about a month . . . and that may only be the first round,” Oakes wrote that day—June 19, 2012, four days after he was diagnosed with leukemia—on his journal page at caringbridge.org. “So I am prepared for a heavyweight fight—and with all your love, support, and prayers we will win one round at a time and ultimately knock out this disease. If I get knocked down, I’m getting back up and swinging away . . .

“I cannot thank you all enough for your kind words, support, love and prayers—I am just absolutely overwhelmed and comforted with gratitude and thankfulness!”

That relentlessly upbeat attitude was a staple of Oakes’ entries over the next six months on Caring Bridge, a website aimed at connecting patients battling serious health problems with friends, family and others offering support and comfort. In no time at all, countless visitors to Oakes’ journal were drawing support and inspiration from his words and his unwavering Christian faith.

“The Caring Bridge website is intended for people like you and me to write inspirational messages for him,” said longtime Golden Gophers assistant coach Rob Fornasiere, who has worked with Oakes for the last 15 years. “If you read his postings, you can see why people have gotten inspiration from him in reverse. People have gained a great insight into what type of person he is. It’s no surprise to me because that’s how Todd’s lived his life as long as I’ve known him.”

The Road To Remission

Oakes, 52, believes his baseball background helped prepare him for his battle with cancer. A former pitcher at Nebraska and for four seasons in the Giants system during the 1980s, Oakes still has an athletic 6-foot-4 frame, and his physical therapist called him “strong as an ox” when he began treatment.

But as he joked on Caring Bridge, he was “unfortunately dumb as an ox also—for waiting 4-5 weeks before going to the doctor.” Oakes hadn’t felt right for much of the 2012 season, and when it ended he finally got himself checked out. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a cancer of the bone marrow. From the onset, Oakes was identified as a likely candidate for a bone marrow transplant.

But first he had to go through three rounds of chemotherapy and one round of radiation, to “wipe out all the bad cancer cells in your blood,” as Oakes explains it. He spent 50 straight days hospitalized at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, trying to keep his mind occupied with daytime television, journaling on Caring Bridge, and spending time with family. He calls his wife, Terri, the “MVP of our family.”

“It’s obviously a physical grind, but it does start working on you mentally,” Oakes said. “You have all these coaching clichés—one game at a time, one pitch at a time, one out at a time. You try to live your life one day at a time. It really gave me a challenge to try to live that out—that’s the only way to live through it. I think my coaching background gave me a good foundation to work my way through this, because it’s all the clichés you throw at your players. So I just tried to get through today, then worry about tomorrow.”

Oakes went home for about a month late in the summer, then returned to the hospital in early September. On Sept. 13, after four days of radiation, Oakes received a bone marrow transplant from his older brother Jerald (nicknamed “Squibb” since their days growing up in small-town Minnesota). Over a period of four or five hours, doctors removed 5.1 million stem cells from Squibb’s bloodstream. Within a few more hours, those cells had been injected into Oakes’ bloodstream.

Over the next month, the stem cells Oakes received from his brother began building his immune system back up from scratch, and his white blood cell count climbed. On Oct. 6, he was released from the hospital. Five days later, doctors told him, “You are in complete remission.”

“My whole bio-treatment went like the textbook says, so I consider myself one of the lucky ones,” Oakes said. “When you hear the word ‘remission’ from the doctor, it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Seeking Normalcy

On Dec. 21, Oakes reached the end of the 100-day post-transplant recovery period, and his strength was increasing with every passing day. Tired of watching “Gunsmoke” re-runs on his recliner, Oakes finally has started driving again for the first time since his diagnosis, and doctors gave him permission to work Minnesota’s holiday baseball camp from Dec. 27-29. If that trial run goes well, Oakes said he hopes to be back “almost full-time” by the time the Gophers start team practice in late January.

While Oakes has been sidelined, his son Tyler has fulfilled many of his duties on Minnesota’s coaching staff. Tyler, who pitched for the Golden Gophers from 2007-’09, spent the last two years as the graduate assistant at South Dakota State, and Minnesota hired him as its volunteer assistant after Todd fell ill this summer.

“When this all came down, I just didn’t want to bring somebody else in not knowing how long Todd was going to be gone, with a different philosophy,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “We were fortunate Tyler was available, and obviously they’re very similar philosophically. And I knew that even if Todd came back, the two of them could do it together. It’s been a wonderful transition. It’s been good for our program, and it’s been good for Todd. The fact that they’ll get to work together the rest of the year, Tyler will get a chance to get some additional experience, but also work alongside his father. It’s been great for all of us.”

Oakes’ middle son, T.J., pitched for the Gophers from 2010-’12. Almost immediately after he signed with the Rockies as an 11th-round pick and reported for duty at short-season Tri-City, his father was diagnosed with leukemia. It made for a difficult summer for T.J., but he relished the time he spent around his father this fall after the season ended.

Oakes’ youngest son, Tanner, is a sophomore at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, so he’s also been nearby during his father’s recovery period.

With the help of his family, his friends and his faith, Oakes has made it through a grueling six-month ordeal, and he’s made a positive impact on many others along the way. The members of his baseball family are eager to welcome him back to the field, and thankful that they will be able to do so very soon.

“It hasn’t been normal, and it won’t be normal until Todd’s back coaching with us,” Anderson said. “But we’re getting closer, and I’m really looking forward to having him back and coaching side by side. He’s a great person, a great teacher and a great leader.”

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