Doug Helsom returned last week to the world of volleyballs flying around and voices loudly echoing through Carroll Fieldhouse. Today, he resumes the daily grind in his day job as a physical therapist at Parkview Hospital.
But among the chaos of coaching and working, the Carroll volleyball coach couldn’t be happier – because the alternative could have been worse.
Helsom, who is entering his ninth season as the Chargers’ coach, is back to teaching volleyball at a youth camp and at Parkview after a month-plus short-term disability following brain surgery in May.
It started more than a year ago in March 2012 when Helsom, 38, began having mild symptoms with light-headedness, a headache and feeling off and talked to his family doctor. Helsom suspected a heart issue, so he had a full cardio workup and when that came back fine, he asked for a head CT scan.
A week and a half later, things changed when he got a call from the doctor’s office. They said the doctor would call him later with more information but that wasn’t good enough for Helsom.
They said they have some things the doctor wants to talk to you about, Helsom said. I said go ahead, and they said we will have the doctor call you later. I was like, No, you have my attention so tell me what’s going on.’
What was going on was a tumor located in his frontal lobe and a small malformation at the base of his cerebella. The doctor did call back, and in my line of work, I know exactly what is entailed with that so I was pretty worked up at that point, Helsom said.
Helsom went to a neurosurgeon, who did an MRI and discovered a frontal lobe meningioma – a small tumor between the front portion of the skull and the frontal lobe of the brain. The concern wasn’t great except it was pushing against major blood vessels and the frontal lobe, while the malformation was small and not considered the source of the symptoms.
Then it was off to a radiation specialist, who used a cyberknife that localized the radiation from 150 to 250 different angles.
During two-a-day preseason volleyball practices last fall, Helsom was also getting five cyberknife treatments between practices and work. Helsom was told the cyberknife sessions would shrink the size of the tumor or at least keep it from growing.
I kind of thought that was the end of it, and I didn’t worry too much about it, he said.
But during a six-month followup and another MRI, the tumor had grown by a centimeter in each direction. He was sent back to the neurosurgeon and the decision was made to have brain surgery and remove the tumor. That happened May 14 and the benign tumor, which measured 2.4 by 2.3 centimeters, was removed.
After spending three days in the ICU, Helsom went home. The first week was spent in a recliner or in bed, with the expected pain and headaches. The recovery, though, has gotten progressively better, and Helsom is ready to return to work.
I couldn’t be more pleased with the overall outcome, Helsom said. I am doing much better than I and the doctor had anticipated. It was just a frontal lobe meningioma, but it was an aggressive, faster-growing meningioma.
As a physical therapist who works in inpatient rehabilitation, Helsom knows about people who have these types of brain issues.
I see the worst of the worst when it comes to outcomes, he said. I work with those who have complications from these types of things, whether it be brain injuries or tumor removal or a stroke. Unfortunately my point of reference was nothing but negative as far as what I could base my experience on. The good thing is I knew what to expect, and I knew what the complications could be, and I could know how to progress myself and work myself back into my normal routine.
It has changed every aspect of my life. I was going through provisions of worst-case scenarios and making sure my family would be taken care of if things went really bad and make sure I had everything squared away. Then to have such a positive outcome and an amazing sense of support, it has put every aspect of my life into a completely different perspective.
The support for Helsom, including his wife, Nicole, and daughters, Gabriella, 5, Riley, 4, and Brynlee, 2, came from everywhere – the volleyball community, the Parkview community, the Carroll community and from their extended families.
It has been an overwhelming community support that is beyond words, said Helsom, who waited until a day before the surgery to tell his daughters.
They took it extremely well, Helsom said. It was one of the most difficult things I have had to do as far as telling them and trying to explain it to them. Afterward, they were just adorable, and they kept coming in to check on me or bring me ice water or a snack. They were my little nursemaids.
A final pathology test came back negative with no planned followup treatments. After getting a baseline MRI last week, Helsom will get yearly MRIs to check if anything has changed or grown.
And now it is back to the court.
The future includes a young Carroll team led by a strong sophomore class that is looking to build on last year’s NHC championship. Helsom is 195-85 (50-6 in the NHC) at Carroll with six sectional and three regional titles. He has progressed from watching open gyms and camps to getting back into the normal coaching routine.
I am beyond excited to go from where I was thinking I wasn’t going to be able to return to getting excited to get back into the grind, Helsom said.
A lot of people were praying for me, and obviously the prayers were answered as far as the outcome. It has affected my life positively and perspective-wise in every single way.