Fresh paint, fresh start
By Denise Baran-Unland Correspondent May 7, 2013 2:50PM
The Pavelka family in the glamorized master bedroom. Sam Pavelka and his wife, Cheryl, with their children. SUBMITTED PHOTO
At A Glance
3 Little Birds 4 Life grants wishes for cancer patients 18-40 years of age. It also provides resources to assist with the cancer journey. Visit www.3littlebirds4life.org or find 3 Little Birds 4 Life on Facebook.
Updated: June 9, 2013 6:02AM
If the decision was solely Sam Pavelka’s, his master bedroom would be a shrine to the Chicago Bears and White Sox. But when the 29-year-old history teacher at Minooka Community High School learned the group 3 Little Birds 4 Life was going to grant his wish for a redecorated bedroom, Pavelka deferred to his wifeCheryl’s judgment.
Decorators Nancy Powers and Roxanne Essex, of Maggie’s Place in Plainfield interior design studio, accompanied Cheryl on the shopping adventure.
“Everything we had in there was all hand-me-downs. Our bedroom looked like a college dormitory,” Pavelka said. “The chemotherapy killed me, so I spent a lot of time lying in there looking at the same four walls. I wanted a fresh start.”
On April 6 and 7, a hardworking army of 10 volunteers painted the master bedroom and bathroom, removing mismatched furniture and installing brand new furniture and accessories.
Meanwhile, Pavelka was at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland for the cessation of blood thinners and the removal of an IVC filter from his neck, which had prevented clots from entering his brain.
Pavelka was checking the 3 Birds 4 Life Facebook page for clues as to what the redecorating team was doing at home. Pavelka said the transformed bedroom is a “complete 180 degree of what it used to be.”
“Gone are all of the furniture pieces that are past 30 years old,” Pavelka said. “The new bedroom set is really nice. We finally have night stands that match. We finally have some decor. We also have a huge 40-inch TV mounted to the wall. They did an amazing job.”
Granting Pavelka’s wish was a terrific way to begin the Chicago chapter of 3 Little Birds 4 Life, said Lauren Greenwood, wish champion for the Chicago chapter.
“Home makeovers involve many volunteers,” Greenwood said. “They are also a great visual representation of the good change that a granted wish can make for someone battling cancer.”
Pavelka was 20 and training for a marathon when he experienced back pain so severe it traveled down his right leg and sent him several times to the emergency room. He tried chiropractic care, cortisone injections, muscle relaxants and cutting back on training.
Finally, Pavelka asked for an MRI, which revealed a tumor on his spine. Pavelka underwent five rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor for surgery.
His Chicago surgeon, Dr. Donald Liu, who died in August while saving two boys from drowning, had pronounced a cure, but Pavelka underwent 25 radiation treatments and five additional rounds of chemotherapy as extra insurance.
Because chemotherapy caused tremendous pain in Pavelka’s sciatic nerve, the muscle in Pavelka’ right leg atrophied, restricting Pavelka to a wheelchair.
Once the cancer was eradicated, physical therapy restored Pavelka’s ability to walk. Pavelka then married Cheryl, began teaching, bought a house and became the father of two, Taylor, now 2, and Madelyn, 6 months.
Last June, the back pain returned; a subsequent MRI revealed the tumor had returned in the same location. Fortunately, the cancer had again not spread, but removing bone tissue and the tumor would offer the best chance for a complete cure.
The concern was that the tumor was becoming chemotherapy-resistant. This entailed an additional five rounds at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital (Ewing’s sarcoma is a pediatric bone cancer), followed by an operation at Johns Hopkins, where neurosurgeons had the skills to perform this procedure.
Pavelka spent the entire month of December, including Christmas, away from his family. In addition to acute sadness from missing his wife and daughters, the pain following two surgeries to remove the tumor and replace the missing bone with an artificial one was intense and unrelenting.
“At one point, I had 10 tubes coming out of my body,” Pavelka said. “They had to give me very strong narcotics just to get me out of the hospital bed and onto a plane to go home.”
Most patients, according to Pavelka, are weaned from high doses of pain medication over several months. Pavelka had only one month because 10 chemotherapy treatments awaited him, so he experienced opiate withdrawal. But good news wasn’t far away.
“The following Monday after returning from Baltimore, I went downtown to the University of Chicago for a CT scan and to meet with my oncologist,” Pavelka said. “The CT scan showed no signs of cancer, so my oncologist canceled the last two rounds of chemotherapy. Thank God! I don’t think I could have handled more drugs. I am officially in remission.”
With a full recovery in sight, Pavelka has two goals: return to the classroom for the 2013-14 school year and take his family on a much-needed vacation.
“My wife has been doing all the cooking, cleaning and bedtime routine. Plus, she’s a first-grade teacher in Oswego,” Pavelka said. “She doesn’t sit down until 10:30 at night. She needs a vacation.”