Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Jesse Garcia shouldn’t be in the game this early.
The UNLV baseball team fell behind 5-0 last Saturday in the first inning against Nebraska-Omaha in the second game of a doubleheader. Enter the 6-foot, 185-pound Garcia, a senior left-handed relief pitcher with middling success this year. Before the weekend he was 1-1 with a 5.84 earned run average in eight appearances.
Today, he’s charged with making the best of a bad situation.
The only UNLV fans excited to see the Rebels go to the bullpen are in the stands behind home plate. Jesse’s mother, Denise, attending her first game of the year is seated next to her sister, Patty Durborough, and brother-in-law, Bill, all three in town from Sacramento. They embraced before the game, mother and son, taking a moment to catch up in person rather than over the phone.
The scene was remarkable only because it wasn’t. They kissed, hugged and smiled, looking like any proud mother and adoring son.
Less than an hour later, Jesse went to the mound, the place he was determined to reach once more, and pushed off the left foot that 10 months ago was discovered to be cancerous, throwing the ball toward his mother who’s once again fighting the disease as well.
‘She’s always been a strong lady’
Last June, after years of pain in his heel had confounded trainers at Sierra College in California and UNLV, Jesse had gone to the doctor for surgery before going home for the summer. Trainers believed that Jesse had plantar fasciitis, an inflammation along the bottom of the foot that causes moderate to severe pain.
Denise said that high arches, a leading cause of plantar fasciitis, run in their family. She even thought Jesse’s Vans shoes, a brand that generally offers little arch support, could be part of the problem. She wishes she were right.
Through the years Jesse underwent frequent stretching, massaging and cortisone shots to his left foot, but the pain still got worse. He waited until after the 2011 season before getting the procedure he thought would require a four-week recovery.
When he answered the phone 13 days later, a nurse told Jesse that the doctor needed to speak with him. Jesse was on hold for two agonizing minutes.
Then, his life changed.
A biopsy revealed that Jesse had synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that usually attacks the joints and is most common in young males.
He didn’t say much before handing the phone to Denise. Soon they were both crying.
“I would rather it be me than him, of course,” Denise said. “It was the same lump in my stomach, kind of like a helpless feeling.”
This is familiar territory for Denise.
First it was borderline ovarian tumors, which show some signs of malignancy but are generally treatable. She beat it in 2002.
About seven years ago, Denise found a lump in her left breast not long after a regular mammogram showed no irregularities. Her fears were confirmed when a biopsy showed that she had Stage 3 breast cancer. She had 19 lymph nodes taken from her arm and her left breast removed. She beat it back into remission.
Cancer runs in her family. Brain cancer claimed her father nearly a quarter century ago. Her mother died a few years after that when breast cancer metastasized into her liver. Denise’s brother, her best friend, died seven years ago. Throat cancer.
Denise looked like the outlier, the one who would finally outwit and outwork the disease that had already taken too much. Then, around Christmas 2010, after nearly six years in remission, she woke up with three fractured ribs.
“It was just bound to happen I guess,” Denise said.
Her breast cancer had metastasized into her bones, where it’s now settled into her ribs, hip, back and skull.
When she first underwent chemotherapy, Denise didn’t miss work. This prognosis wouldn’t bring different results. She still worked and traveled for her position in the Army Corps of Engineers’ Office of Small Business Programs.
“She’s always been a strong lady,” Jesse said.
Once cancer metastasizes into the bones, it’s a question of when, not if. That’s difficult to remember when talking with Denise. She shared a beer with her sister and laughed at a familiar story. She smiles constantly. She’s relentlessly positive.
Recently, Denise started radiation treatments again, undergoing full-body scans that help ease her pain. Every day she takes Arimidex, which helps slow the growth of tumors. She fights it, because that’s what she knows how to do.
“When you say cancer, everybody thinks that’s automatic death. And really it isn’t,” Denise said. “There’s so many medical advancements now. At least you can prolong your life.
“For me, that’s what I’m working on.”
‘His determination is incredible’
That moment right after the call, mother and son crying in each other’s arms, may have been their only moments of doubt. Instead of parsing through stages of grief, Denise quickly went into action, calling her oncologist and getting Jesse looked at a couple of days after his diagnosis.
From very early on, while his family, friends, teammates and coaches worried about Jesse’s health, he focused on the solitary goal of getting back on the field for his senior year.
“That was all that was pretty much on my mind,” Jesse said.
His treatment options boiled down to removing the cancerous soft tissue in his foot and going through rounds of radiation treatment, or just doing the surgery and hoping that that was enough.
The answer seems simple, until you combine insurance coverage and a bullheaded lefty.
The Garcias go to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in California. Jesse’s father, Joe — who’s divorced from Denise — has healthcare coverage that wouldn’t cover out-of-state costs for Jesse. And UNLV legally couldn’t cover the radiation treatments because it wasn’t injury-related.
UNLV coach Tim Chambers was in contact with Joe and Denise from the beginning, but Jesse’s stubbornness would push him into a larger role.
“Jesse said, ‘I’m not going to get it if I need to leave (Las Vegas). I’m not going to miss my senior year.’ For him to know the condition of his mother and to say he’s not going to get it,” Chambers said, pausing to shake his head. “I basically said you’re going to go home if we can’t figure this thing out.”
So Chambers, who coached at Bishop Gorman and the College of Southern Nevada before taking over UNLV last year, did the most logical thing for a man in his position: He made a game plan.
Chambers contacted the UNLV administration, which then went to the Mountain West Conference and NCAA to see if it was legal to seek a local doctor to perform radiation treatments on Jesse pro bono.
When he got the OK, Chambers started running through the contacts he’d accumulated through more than two decades as a coach in Las Vegas.
“(Jesse) was really stressed out because he knew I was going to force him to go home if we couldn’t find someone to do it,” Chambers said.
One name he picked out was Chris Zockoll, a UNLV player from 1969-72 and current booster. Chambers brought in Zockoll, who’s very involved with the Church of Jesus Chris of Latter-day Saints, for a meeting with Jesse, and together the three of them put together a letter detailing the situation and asking for help.
They sent it to three local doctors. And one by one, they all said yes.
“Tim Chambers, to me, is an angel for being able to get him help here,” Denise said.
Jesse underwent the surgery in Oakland at the end of July. The procedure requires an incision along his entire foot, and they all had to wait a week for the results of the biopsy before exhaling.
In August, Jesse returned to campus and started getting his radiation treatments at St. Rose Dominican Hospital — Siena Campus. Every weekday at 7 a.m. for six weeks, Jesse signed in, went through the seven-minute procedure and then limped out. Unlike chemotherapy, which can cause hair loss and rapid weight loss, the radiation’s effects were mostly limited to fatigue. And it was never enough to keep him from working.
“His determination is incredible,” Denise said.
Jesse lifted weights, sat in a chair to play catch and then grabbed his crutches to watch his team during fall practice. Doctors said he would have to work twice as hard to get back in time for the season, so that’s exactly what he did. When the treatments were over and he could start to put significant weight on his left foot, the workload increased.
He started to regain strength, he ran and, more importantly for a pitcher, velocity on his throws. He found his breaking ball again, something Chambers said was missing in 2011.
In the first game of the season, on Feb. 17, Jesse stepped on the mound in the sixth inning, most of the crowd at Loyola Marymount unaware of what it took to get there.
“I’ve always felt like that’s all I really know how to do. I know how to do other things, you know, but I just love playing baseball,” Jesse said. “There’s nothing like being on the mound, the ball in your hand, controlling the game.”
‘That should be great’
Last Saturday, Jesse pitched five innings, striking out a career-high six batters to give the Rebels a chance to win in an 8-6 defeat to Nebraska-Omaha.
He limped off the mound, the toll of 79 pitches showing with every step. Don’t take pity, though. This is exactly what he wanted, the chance to finish his career on the diamond with his teammates.
He knows what’s ahead: four checkups a year that include a full array of scans — “It’s just something I’m going to have to deal with for the rest of my life” — and the survivors worry their cancer will come back.
That’s part of his new reality, but so is the joy that comes after an eye-opening experience.
“Before, you’re just a college student, you’re out having a good time every day,” Jesse said. “You don’t stop and think about the great things in life that you do have.”
He has those moments now, and Saturday was certainly one of them. He was in control amid an uncontrollable world and Denise was there to see it.
“This is his dream, to be able to play baseball, and I totally, 100 percent support him in that,” Denise said. “I think you should follow your dream.”
Denise never tried to temper Jesse’s expectations about playing this season. Positive thought had guided her through these battles before and she believed that was the best plan of action again.
The same thoughts will guide the Garcias to UNLV’s season-ending series May 18-20 at Sacramento State, which is about 10 minutes from Denise’s home. Before the season, before he had even made it all the way back, Jesse was telling everyone back home to save the dates.
“That should be great,” Denise said.
There was no guarantee that Jesse was going to make it to that series. There is no guarantee that Denise will make it to that series. You would be a fool to bet against either.
The homecoming needs her smile. It needs another embrace, another moment with a mother watching her son live his dream, an unremarkable game unlike any other.