When Mike Gleeson saw a pair of Seahawks tickets at Virginia Mason's auction for Team Medicine, he bid generously. It wasn't just the opportunity to go to the game. Each dollar was a thank you to Virginia Mason Franciscan Health (VMFH) for saving his life – not once but twice.
“I follow two rules. The first is to be a supportive and positive role model dad to my daughter, Elena. The second is to live life with intention,” he says.
Being Elena’s dad has been the best job he could have ever hoped for, filling Mike with joy that is so great he says nothing comes close to second place. His commitment to living life with intention, however, started in early 2019 thanks to the keen ear and thorough care of Teresa Vasicek, ARNP, part of VMFH’s gastroenterology team.
As soon as Mike said hello at his annual check-up, Teresa immediately noticed a change in his voice.
“She came over to feel my throat. Right away she felt a lump,” Mike says. “I saw the gastro team once a year for acid reflux, but that’s where my lifesaving care started.”
Mike meets his lifesaving medical lineup
Teresa requested a CT scan and the next week Mike met with otolaryngologist, Stephen Bayles, MD, to review the results. Unfortunately, Dr. Bayles told Mike the lump in his throat was cancerous. His next introduction was to Meaghan O’Malley, MD – his new oncologist.
“Everything snowballed pretty quickly. The doctors worked fast to pursue every avenue of my diagnosis before I had time to think of a question,” Mike says. “Their diligence and thoroughness saved my life.”
Dr. O’Malley ordered a full body scan to ensure Mike’s cancer hadn’t spread. Sadly, the scan identified a second type of cancer, lymphoma, in Mike’s spleen.
“For some reason, I knew early on I would make it. A few times I was scared, no doubt. But focusing on the emotion-filled thought of my teenage daughter losing her dad kept me going,” Mike says.
Because treatment for throat cancer would impair his ability to eat, and his body wouldn’t be able to simultaneously handle two chemotherapy treatments, Mike’s doctors decided to beat the throat cancer first. He also began daily radiation for both cancers at the St. Anne Cancer Center. Once the chemo treatment for his throat was completed, he immediately started chemotherapy for the lymphoma.
Mike believes having a positive attitude made a big difference in his ability to get through the horrific side effects of chemotherapy, living with a feeding tube, and losing a quarter of his weight and most of his strength.
“Everyone at Virginia Mason treated me like I mattered. Every day, they see cancer robbing people of their lives, but they always looked me in the eyes and genuinely asked how I was doing. I did everything I could to be a good patient for them,” he says.
Also holding Mike up were several helpful and supportive family, friends and neighbors who did whatever they could to help him to focus on treatment and healing.
Finally, in August 2019, six months after his diagnosis, Dr. O’Malley declared Mike cancer free.
“I owe Dr. O’Malley and everyone who made up my cancer team my life but it started with Teresa,” he says. “I am forever grateful to her.”
Another devastating diagnosis and an all-star care team
For the next 18 months, Mike focused on rebuilding his strength and every month he was farther away from cancer was a win. But eventually, his progress plateaued and he began experiencing chest pain.
“When I told Brandon Auerbach, MD, my primary care provider, that I was having some chest pain he put me through several heart tests and I passed all of them,” Mike says.
But like the gastroenterology team and the oncology team, Dr. Auerbach didn’t take any chances. He sent Mike to see Drew Baldwin, MD – Mike’s new cardiologist.
Dr. Baldwin decided to do an angiogram, a scan that shows how well blood is flowing through the heart.
“I had at least a 90 percent blockage on each side of my heart. Everyone was amazed I hadn’t already had a heart attack,” he said.
The next week, he had quintuple bypass surgery. Mike spent just two days in the ICU after his bypass surgery. He felt so good the second day that he started walking around the hospital – and was discharged when staff caught him (accidentally) far beyond where heart patients, and their electronic monitors, were supposed to be.
After moving into the Kitsap Peninsula (future retirement) house he designed, Mike dedicated even more time to living with intention. Today, Mike fills his calendar with concerts, comedy shows, and weekend trips as time allows.
“The bypass surgery was a setback, but it also opened new doors. I can now exercise, travel, hike, and go to Seahawk games. I can build furniture in my woodshop without pain and with the confidence that my heart is healthy,” Mike says. “I’m most fortunate to be Elena’s dad and I’m forever grateful to the doctors and staff that helped me and saved my life – twice.”