David Freeze’s next journey: Blood clots from cross-country ride help reveal brain tumor
If you see David Freeze today, you best smile. Although he’s not convinced he wants this article written, he wants to tell you that he’s begun another journey.
A local writer and running coach, David, who completed a 4,164-mile cross-country bicycle ride this summer, was diagnosed with a brain tumor on Oct. 6.
“The thing I keep going back to is how your life changes when the doctor comes in and tells you he wants to run the test again, because there might be something there,” David says.
David finished his ride Aug. 4. That trip was not without physical repercussions. He developed a severe ear infection, and also found when running that he was short of breath.
“As soon as I started running again on Aug. 6, it was awkward because my muscles had forgotten how to run,” David says. “But I was struggling to breathe, which I didn’t expect.”
His breathing worsened to the point where he couldn’t run a mile.
“To me, that’s the same thing as not being able to run at all,” David says.
He was even out of breath brushing his teeth.
He made an appointment with Robert Ruhlman, a physician’s assistant with Farrington Family Medical Center.
Ruhlman ordered a chest X-ray and bloodwork, and wanted to do another physical. David had undergone one in May, just days before he left for Oregon, so they had a baseline to which they could compare the later results. He also had an EKG.
“It was exactly the same as the one before, which was a good thing,” David says. At the time, doctors suspected he might have a heart problem.
“I knew that I was in trouble,” David says. He knew he wouldn’t gain anything by continuing to run every day, a habit he’d had for 33 years and 70,000 miles. So he decided to take it easy for a few days, with the faint hope that rest would help solve the problem. That same afternoon, he started to develop a pretty severe pain in the back of his right calf that felt like a muscle strain.
“But I knew it wasn’t,” he says.
An idea stuck him. He wondered if he could have a blood clot.
“I started researching it that Sunday night,” David says. “Within a few minutes, I felt like I had most of the symptoms.”
They included a rapid resting pulse, extreme shortness of breath, decreased energy level and swollen foot and ankle.
On Monday, David went back to see Ruhlman with notes he’d made about his symptoms, and was there when the office opened. He was sent for tests at the hospital, where he was immediately diagnosed with an acute blood clot in his right leg, a deep vein thrombosis.
As a result of this diagnosis, David was set up for a CT scan of his lungs. Four more blood clots were found.
“They had miraculously passed through my heart without causing an embolism,” he says.
David returned to Ruhlman’s office for further treatment to stabilize the blood clots. He was put on a blood thinner, Xeralto, which would break up the clots within about a month. Within a few days, he began to feel better, and his breathing started to improve. His pulse slowed and the pain in his leg abated. That Friday morning, Oct. 4, he went for a run.
“I ran easy, didn’t push, and did OK,” he says.
Late in the week, he’d had abdominal and lung scans. The scans revealed some spots thought to be inflammation left from the blood clots. A final test, a brain MRI, was set for Sunday morning, Oct. 6.
“I thought that would be the last test,” he says. “In fact, I had tried to talk Robert into not making me take it.”
But, in a heartfelt way, Ruhlman called him in for a consultation, and urged him to do it.
“That convinced me,” David says.
That morning, his daughters, Ashley Baker and Amber Freeze, accompanied their dad to the hospital.
“They did the scan, which I thought was really cool,” he says. “I’d only had one other MRI. I thought, well, you know, this might be all right.”
David had his choice of music to listen to during the scan. He picked gospel music.
“Every Sunday morning that I can, I listen to 91.7,” he says. “They have upbeat gospel music.”
The technician put the headphones on David, and secured his head with a helmet.
“I totally enjoyed the MRI,” he says. “It was fun, and I was tapping my toes right along with the music. Everything was really good up to that point.”
Dr. Jeff Ralston, a radiologist, was watching the test.
“The technician came over the speaker and said, ‘Dr. Ralston wants to talk to you.’”
He said, “I see something that I want to take another look at.”
This time, the test used contrast dye.
“They rolled me back in, and I’m just immediately praying that what they see will not amount to anything,” David says. “Up to that point, everybody was in a jovial mood and I was just enjoying the experience, way better than what I expected.
“So then they get through, and they let me out of the machine. I could see my daughters and Dr. Ralston looking at the screen. They were all really intent on it. I just felt that something bad was there.”
What they saw was a brain tumor in the top of David’s head, in the ventricle of the brain. It was 2 centimeters in width, which is still considered small.
David dressed and sat down to talk with Ralston.
“What did you find?” he asked.
“You have a brain tumor,” Ralston told him.
“And that’s the last words you want to hear,” David says.
Ralston described the tumor and said it was in a good spot to be removed. It was small, and had been viewed from several different angles.
“He thought that if you had to have a brain tumor, this looks like a good place for you to have one, and a good size for it to be,” David says.
David and his daughters went to breakfast with Ralston, who happens to be dating Amber.
“Everybody was kinda gloomy,” he says, “but for some reason, I strangely wasn’t. Dr. Ralston had already called one of his colleagues, Dr. James Johnson, who confirmed it was a good place. He called at the restaurant and they talked some. He came back and told us it was some good news.”
David already had an appointment with Dr. William Brinkley, an oncologist and hematologist, the next week. It was another appointment he tried to talk doctors out of scheduling.
Brinkley reviewed all the scans and said he felt good about where the tumor was. He wanted to keep an eye on the blood clots in David’s lungs, and keep him on the blood thinner — which complicated his case. He decided to do more bloodwork to get further details about the tumor.
Ralston was able to schedule David to see Dr. Anthony Asher, a Charlotte neurosurgeon, right away. They met the morning of Oct. 9 at Carolina Oncology Associates. Asher confirmed Brinkley’s opinion.
“He said my tumor was fairly rare, but at the moment was more concerned about the blood clots,” David says.
The two discussed his medical history, including the fact he’d been a vegetarian for the past 30 years. They also talked about David’s bike trip. David told him that Ruhlman had thought way ahead and scheduled the brain scan — simply because of a gut feeling he’d had.
“Because my tumor is fairly rare and we are waiting on the bloodwork, Dr. Asher will meet with other neurosurgeons and neuroradiologists next Wednesday. Then they will call and tell me the plan.”
“Immediately, I thought I wanted to keep it private, very private,” David says. “Then, my doctors and friends suggested that I not bottle it up, that I let it be out and accept the thoughts and prayers about the situation.
“I’ve made so many new friends and met so many new people following the bike ride, maybe it is the right thing to do to let people know about it.
“I went from the bike ride to the blood clots to the brain tumor. If I hadn’t had the willingness to take on that cross-country adventure to ride the bike across the country, the brain tumor would have continued to grow. I wouldn’t have known about it for maybe years. As it was, I developed blood clots from extreme dehydration and length of time spent at high altitudes. So in a way, I’m lucky to have had those blood clots.
“My mother died of a major brain tumor. By the time they discovered it, it was too late. The key here is that because of the bike ride, I might have been blessed enough that this tumor is small and much different than hers.
“Going forward, the big thing is that I’m going to do as much I can possibly do, experience life in the biggest way that I can, be involved, and I’m going to continue to push myself.
“I’m finishing up my book about the bike trip, I’m scheduling group running classes at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, at the hospital and at First Methodist, I’m working with my running clients, and I’m continuing to speak to local groups about my trip. I’ve got stuff scheduled through November, and I don’t want to miss a single thing.
“When people see me, I expect optimism and smiles, and a positive discussion. At the very least, I expect a positive exchange — just like it’s been about the bike ride.
“Remember, I can still outrun every one of you. I’m going to catch you and make you smile. This is a time for lots of smiles.”
Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.