By EMMALEE C. TORISK
On Jan. 23, the day of a risky surgery to remove a tumor nestled between her middle son’s heart and lung, and growing out through his ribs, Rebecca Macklen didn’t feel alone, though she was.
Throughout the 10-hour procedure at the Cleveland Clinic, which was complicated by the tumor’s close proximity to 22-year-old Dean Macklen’s heart and aorta, she felt buoyed by the dozens of encouraging words and prayers arriving by way of text messages or online posts.
“It’s wonderful to know that people care,” Rebecca said. “How can God not listen when you have so many people praying for him?”
That support has been a constant ever since Dean first became ill in mid-September, said Rebecca. At the time, Dean — a 2009 graduate of Struthers High School — was just beginning his senior year at Youngstown State University, where he majored in geography and geology. He worked, too, at the tire shop of Sam’s Club in Boardman.
Complaints of shortness of breath and an increased heart rate, along with night sweats, led to Dean’s first five-week hospital stay, which was filled with a multitude of tests. It was only the beginning, however, of several months spent in and out of the hospital.
Rebecca added that family, friends and strangers alike have rallied around the Macklen family — which also consists of father Rich Macklen Sr., and his siblings, 34-year-old Nicole Reeves Hernon, 24-year-old Rich Macklen Jr., and 17-year-old Sam Macklen — through the ordeal, from their early struggles to obtain a definitive diagnosis, to three rounds of chemotherapy, to the well-attended benefit spaghetti dinner in November, all the way to last week’s surgery.
Surgeons removed the entire malignant teratoma, along with a portion of Dean’s lung and a section of his chest wall, including skin, muscle and ribs. He then endured extensive reconstruction using muscle pulled around from his back and skin taken from his leg.
Though the surgery was substantial, and recovery so far is painful, Rebecca said her son is “getting better every day.” His course of treatment, however, is “kind of in the limbo stage,” she added, explaining that Dean will spend the next few weeks simply recovering.
Approximately six weeks after his surgery, his team of doctors will decide how to best address the practically unheard-of combination that he’s battling: aleukemic mast cell leukemia, paired with histiocytic neoplasm in his bone marrow.
“He’s a rare kind of guy,” Rebecca said. “He has some very aggressive cancers, and doctors had to decide, ‘Which do we fight first?’ We’re not sure what the next step is going to be, ... but we’re going to do whatever we have to do.”
Treatment is made more difficult by Dean’s dependency on platelet transfusions, however. Hernon said he’s on them “continuously,” and that doctors don’t quite know “what’s gobbling up his platelets.” In fact, his surgery originally was scheduled for Jan. 21, but had to be delayed for two days after doctors determined his levels were too low to proceed as planned.
Rebecca added that doctors have told her the drastically low platelet levels are a result of the cancers’ preventing Dean’s body from making enough new cells, along with his damaged spleen consuming those his body does make. In addition, since Dean still is recovering from last week’s surgery, not much can be done to combat this problem.
Even so, Dean has maintained “a very good, positive attitude,” as have members of his family, Rebecca said.
She added that it has helped immeasurably to have unwavering support from so many people, including staff members at the Cleveland Clinic — many of whom consider Dean to be a friend of theirs and have gone out of their way to keep up with Dean’s progress — and residents of the American Cancer Society’s Joseph S. and Jeannette M. Silber Hope Lodge.
The latter is a free place for cancer patients and their caregivers to stay during treatment at the nearby Cleveland Clinic. Everyone is “very supportive of each other,” since “everybody’s in the same boat,” Rebecca said.
Of course, she added, it’s impossible not to have low moments, but the family — especially Dean — stays positive and takes it day by day about “99 percent of the time.”
“He just feels like he’s going to be cured, that he’s going to be fine,” Rebecca said.
To keep up with Dean’s progress, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/deanmacklen.