The Lost Year

Two freshmen student-athletes from disparate edges of the country arrived on the AIC campus in the fall of 2018. One played hockey; the other, baseball. Both were high school standouts with promising athletic careers in their sights; neither knew they were about to be bonded by more than just the black and yellow of AIC nation.

Eric Otto AIC's student-athlete. Photo taken by Seth KayeEric Otto of Burnsville, Minnesota, arrived on the AIC campus in September of 2018, eager to start his new life as a student-athlete.

Then it happened. He was climbing a stairway in the Campus Center when he realized that something was not right. Here he was, a twenty-one year- old hockey player, and he couldn’t make the stairs without feeling short of breath.

“Actually, I was walking around, feeling crappy, for about a year. I played a season of junior hockey before I came to AIC, and I would feel something after a thirty-second shift on the ice,” Otto said.

Why was he feeling so bad? He heard the terrible answer to that question on September 11, 2018, when AIC’s Director of Health Services Mary Paquette, MS, RN, FNP told him he had stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma.

In a word—cancer.

Hockey Coach Eric Lang was with him when the diagnosis came down.

“It hit me so hard. I choked up, and all I could do was look at Coach. The look on his face told me that the c-word hit him just as hard,” Otto said.

Eli Vazquez AIC's student-athlete. Photo taken by Seth Kaye
Eli Vazquez of Holyoke was working out in a fall session with coach Nick Callini’s AIC baseball team. A ball took a bad hop and caught him in the neck, just under his right ear.

At first, it left a bruise—or so he thought. Actually, the ball’s impact merely called attention to a lump.

“That lump in my neck made me realize my body was changing. I was feeling exhausted and losing two or three pounds a week. I knew I needed to see a doctor,” he said.

He underwent an extensive exam on October 10, 2018, at Holyoke Medical Center and had to wait six hours for the results. Vazquez was shocked when he heard the diagnosis: non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In a word—cancer.

“It really stunned me because my grandmother died of breast cancer. I was shocked. I went home and stayed in bed for about a week,” Vazquez said.

SO THERE THEY WERE, two talented freshmen athletes, eager to start their college careers, suddenly stopped in their tracks and forced to face an uncertain future.

The cancer diagnosis not only shattered their dreams of playing varsity sports, but it forced them to leave AIC at a time when their first semester had barely begun. Otto went home on September 28, 2018, to begin treatment at Minnesota Oncology’s clinic in his hometown of Burnsville. Vazquez went to his family in Holyoke and soon began treatments at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield.

The good news, if there could be any in this situation, is that both forms of Hodgkin lymphoma are treatable to the point of cure, but it can be a long and grinding road. So it was for Eric and Eli, as they endured months of chemotherapy. Both were bedridden at first, then gradually began trying to get out and be with friends. It wasn’t that easy. As Otto pointed out, he would have to come home early “because I had no immune system.”

“But I always felt that I would beat this thing,” Vazquez said.

Stage 4 lymphoma occurs when cancer spreads to a part of the body outside of the lymphatic system. In Otto’s case, it affected his right lung.

“They found dark spots on the lung. It was shriveled and had to be drained. They went in through my back to do it,” he said.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma—the disease which attacked Vazquez—originates in the lymphatic system. In non-Hodgkin lymphoma, tumors develop from lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.

“My chest, spleen, and stomach were affected,” he said. “They had to take out three lymph nodes.”

These cancers are named for Dr. Thomas Hodgkin, a nineteenth-century British pathologist who was the first to identify lymphoma as a disease rather than an infection.

Otto Vazquez in the Baseball field photo taken by Leon Nguyen

Vazquez, whose dream is to play professional baseball, looks to Jon Lester, a left-handed pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, as a role model. In late-August of 2006, when he was a twenty-two-year-old rookie with the Boston Red Sox, Lester was diagnosed with a form of lymphatic cancer. He recovered in time to rejoin the team in late-July of the next season and pitched for the World Series winners in 2007 and 2013. After joining the Cubs in 2015 as a free agent, he helped them win a world championship a year later. Now, at age thirty-five, he’s still a workhorse starter in their pitching rotation.

For Otto and Vazquez, their “lost year” is over. Both have reached the point of being cancer-free. Their cases will need to be monitored from time to time, but both are ready to get back to the sports they have loved since childhood.

“I learned to skate and carry the puck when I was four, and I was fortunate to play in a state where high school hockey is very big. Now I’m at the point when I can get back to skating,” said Otto, who’s now in good shape at six foot one, 192 pounds. “I’ll be a twenty-two-year-old redshirt freshman this year. I won’t play until next season, but I’ll be skating with the team in practice. I plan to concentrate on academics, and I feel like I’m back with my team. Matter of fact, when they played in the NCAA regional last spring in Fargo, North Dakota, I was able to get there from my hometown and cheer them on. Coach Lang and his assistant, Cory Schneider, have been so supportive. And the guys on the team have been great. It’s like we have become brothers.”

Meanwhile, Vasquez will be getting back to baseball, a sport he learned in Holyoke’s youth leagues. A natural athlete at six foot three and 205 pounds (up from 170 when he was diagnosed), he made the Springfield Republican’s All-Western Mass. teams in both baseball and basketball as a high school senior in 2018.

“We start the fall baseball program here at AIC on Oct. 10— and that’s a year since I heard the c-word,” he said. “It’s so great to be a Yellow Jacket again, starting to work toward my degree and being part of the team. I was going to be the starting center fielder before this happened. Now, I realize I have to work my way back, and that’s okay. I can do it knowing I’m healthy again.”

“We’re really excited to have Eli back,” said Nick Callini, his baseball coach. “I kept in touch with him while he was undergoing his treatments, and he always had a positive attitude. I expected to see a frailer version of him, but he always looked strong and upbeat. As for baseball, Eli has a tremendous upside as an outfielder and a pitcher.”

AIC Yellow Jackets hockey players on the bench

Both Otto and Vazquez have received loving support from their families and friends.

“My mom is a real trooper, a cancer survivor who also came through heart surgery,” Otto said. “When I told her about my cancer, I said, ‘Now it’s my turn.’”

When Vazquez told his mother that he had cancer, she was already dealing with some heartbreaking family issues, including the death of her sister at the age of forty-two.

“She had a lot going on, and me on top of it,” Vazquez said. “Months later, when I told her I was cured, she wept. Then we started talking about the time when the whole family will come to my first game in the spring. My mom can’t wait to see me play.”

Through all of their turmoil, Eric and Eli have come to know each other and support each other. Now, they are “Yellow Jackets again”—healthy and forever bonded by the ordeals they endured for so many months.

 

By Garry Brown ’55, Hon ’14