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COACH BACK AFTER CANCER TREATMENT
Town Journal - 12/7/2017
Bob Tschinkel requested his last rights from a priest in January. Thankfully, the coach felt fully alive 11 months later, when he led his Northern Highlands boys bowling team into battle Saturday.
His frightening journey began as the 2016-17 season was approaching. There was no indication at the time that there was anything wrong. The coach was feeling well and fit. In fact, he was biking 10 miles per day.
"I had no symptoms at all," he recalled.
However a blood test taken during a physical exam in April 2016 had ominous readings. His doctor reported malignancies in the coach's blood. Eventually a bone marrow biopsy was ordered, but the results were inconclusive.
Eventually, Tschinkel called Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for a consultation in late June. There he was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, defined as a group of disorders caused by poorly formed blood cells or cells that do not work properly. The married father of one had cancer.
The news didn't get any better when no treatment plan was decided upon.
"The doctor said we just had to watch and wait," the 64-year-old Tschinkel recalled. "There is a low risk level, an intermediate risk 1, an intermediate risk 2 and high risk. I was low risk."
By then, Tschinkel had alerted athletic director Bob Williams and asked former bowling coach Rich Smith if he'd be available to take over the team, just in case. Smith said he would do anything to help.
Six weeks later, the condition had worsened dramatically, soaring to the high-risk level. Tschinkel left the team, had another bone marrow test and was hospitalized for 57 days, undergoing chemotherapy.
"Seven days, 24 hours," he said of the treatments. "The second round of chemo started on Jan. 19 and I really got sick. I had a cold and temperatures up to 103 degrees. I was critical."
With death a possibility, he asked to see a priest.
"If I'm going to die, I want my last rites," he said.
Still, there was a miracle awaiting. The fever cleared up, Tschinkel felt healthier and he returned home. He underwent another round of chemo, but in the meantime, his four siblings had been tested and his older brother, Andrew, was determined to be the perfect match to donate bone marrow for a transplant.
"I came home on May 4," Tschinkel said. "Altogether, I had spent 81 days in the hospital, but I gained a lot of strength from the team, from emails and cards and through every one of their wins."
Dedicating their season to him, the boys went on to win the North 1, Group 4 state sectional championship.
"And a biopsy on Oct. 24 showed no signs of unhealthy cells. I was in remission. I was shown a list of possible side effects and I didn't have any of them. The doctors said that the saving grace was that I was in good physical condition [when the illness struck]."
There actually were a few pleasing moments in the hospital. When Tschinkel would force himself out of bed to do a little walking while dragging along the tower that had him connected to intravenous tubes, it was noticed by fellow patients.
There were 40 of them in his wing and several told him that he inspired them through his determination to be mobile.
"I was lucky," the coach said. "My nurses were my coaches."
Last year, after the boys won the sectional title, Smith said, "The kids really miss Bob. Bob is really the man behind it all. He brought stability to the program. Bob taught these kids not only how to bowl, but how to bowl competitively. He taught them where to line up, how to place their mark and send the ball where they want it to go."
With Tschinkel back coaching, there was one more comeback to celebrate at Bowler City on Saturday.
"One of our new guys, Jake Sedor, had the eighth-highest series with a couple of 200 games," he said. "Last year, I cut him. He was barely able to roll an 80 [game], but this year in tryouts, he bowled 177. I told his parents, wherever they sent him for lessons was money well spent."
The boys team looks promising, led by a group of seniors Max Halpin, Will Cunningham, Jacob Lucibello, Matt Kim and the sophomore, Sedor. Most of them were regulars on the state team. The girls team was just forming and not ready for tournament play.
While he has recovered, Tschinkel needs to be cautious because his resistance is extremely low. He is dangerously vulnerable and must avoid people, kids, who have colds.
"I try to stay away from crowds," he reported. "I attend the earliest mass because there will be less people in church and I sit in the choir loft."
But there was no keeping him away from coaching.
"I was very nervous," he said of his return. "I was thankful to Bob Williams and the members of the Board of Education for granting me a leave of absence. I was extremely happy to be back and the boys finished sixth [out of 30 teams in the tournament], which was very nice. Of course there were times when I was saying, 'How can you miss that spare? How could you miss that?' "
Thankfully, the old coach was back.