Couple are lifters to each other
Special to the LVN
We have all encountered people in our lives that inspire us to be better. These people, through everyday interactions, seem to lift up those around them and give us hope in our own humanity. The best way to describe these extraordinary individuals would be to call them what they are, lifters. Lifters raise our souls to heights never expected and inspire us to lift others.
Former Fallon residents, Steve and Lori Strempke who now reside in Fernley. are lifters by choice each and every day. It shouldn’t be assumed that Steve is the only lifter here. Lori, his wife of 27 years, stands firmly beside him fulfilling her own role as a lifter.
The first time you see Steve you might notice that the left side of his head and cheek don’t look quite right. If you look closer you can tell that he is wearing a prosthetic ear. Most would feel that it would be incredibly rude to prolong our glance or even find ourselves staring. Steve’s prosthetic was engineered to accomplish its purpose, which was to avoid the uneasy feeling we are prone to experience in circumstances we don’t really have the skill to handle appropriately.
How do you approach, but not offend? How do you approach, but not intrude? Well, for many of us our solution is avoidance, but if you can overcome that reluctance, often a great story awaits you.
In fact, people like Steve often want you to approach: “I encourage anyone to come ask me questions about my prosthetic ear or why my ear is missing. I’m welcoming, and I believe that most people who have some type of disability or injury are, as well. Most of us aren’t afraid to tell our stories.”
Steve exudes self-confidence with regards to his prosthesis and the story behind it confirms his willingness to share. If you do approach these stories, they will lift you.
At the age of 46 in April of 1998, Steve’s wife found a lump the size of a pencil eraser on his face next to his ear. If she rubbed the area he had an intense pain travel deep into his face. They both knew that they needed to figure out what the lump and pain signified. Steve followed the normal medical route and began with his local doctor. He was given antibiotics which didn’t help. The dentist he saw was so concerned about the growth on Steve’s face that he made Steve schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor. That led to disappointments with treatment and months of misleading diagnoses. By September, Steve’s tumor had turned into a growth the size of a 50-cent piece and was extremely painful.
Steve and Lori began their medical journey in Fallon and ended up at UC Davis Medical Center, where they were given the news that Steve would need to undergo an eight-hour surgery to remove the Merkel Cell Tumor that was progressively growing.
Merkel Cell Carcinoma is an uncommon type of skin cancer, but one of the most dangerous types. It is located in the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin, and the tumors usually appear on sun-exposed parts of the skin, but not always. They can appear as firm, pink, red, or purple lumps or bumps. Once metastasized it is extremely difficult to treat and can be fatal.
Steve’s cancer had metastasized. The predicted outcome, which proved to be correct, included Steve losing his left ear, the functioning of his eyelid, skin grafts, and four reconstructive surgeries.
Steve admits he was scared before the surgery, but felt he wasn’t going to die. “Something told me I wouldn’t,” recounted Steve, almost eighteen years later. The eight hour surgery became a fifteen hour surgery, which required extensive skin grafts and produced sensitive wound areas that would demand constant attention over the years.
Seeing his reflection in the mirror after his initial surgery was shocking. “I cried a bit. I sat in the bathroom for quite some time and realized that I was still alive. I was told later that the first words I used to describe myself were, ‘Ugly as the day is long.’” Steve realized a long time ago that his ear and the image it displayed, was a lot less valuable than his life.
Steve relied on Lori for his wound care and they became a team dependent upon one another, but they weren’t a team alone. They relied on doctors, nurses, home health care, family members, friends, and their consistent faith in God to carry them through.
Much of that reliance on professionals required them to travel. Lori and Steve lifted each other as they spent a total of 44 days, the first year after Steve was diagnosed, driving to UC Davis or recovering in California. The lifting continued as he was treated with 32 days of radiation treatment in Reno. Through the years they have had their share of sitting and waiting in plenty of doctors’ offices. Disappointments with the time line of Steve’s reconstructive surgeries and the constant need to check for any reoccurrence of new skin cancer consumed much of their time.
Humorous moments are part of their story too. Steve’s first prosthetic ear somehow managed to dislodge from its magnets, either on a plane or in the airport terminal. Steve said, “I walked up to the Lost and Found and asked the attendant if anyone had turned in a prosthetic ear. He looked at me peculiarly and said that prosthetic arms and legs had been turned in, but never an ear. My ear was never found. I had to chuckle because I wondered how you lose a leg or arm at the airport and successfully continue on. Wouldn’t you notice them missing?”
Lori told of one Halloween night when Steve answered the door to a group of teenagers asking if Steve’s missing ear, minus the prosthetic, was part of a Halloween costume or if it was real. Upon hearing the truth, the boys’ facial expressions provided Steve with great humor.
Another time Steve called Lori from a hotel years ago and informed her that he had lost his prosthetic ear while changing his sunglasses. Fortunately, he found it the next morning in the parking lot, but since it was made out of rubber the tire marks apparently made by a large truck running it over hadn’t really affected it in the least bit.
Steve enjoys playing pranks on the TSA attendants at the airport. He purposely, on occasion, places his wallet, keys, belt, and prosthetic ear into the x-ray basket and enjoys seeing the reaction as it gets scanned. Steve explained, “One time an agent said, ‘Whoa! You got to prepare someone for that!’ Once, I even had a guy in an elevator ask me if Mike Tyson had taken a bite out of me.”
Steve has advice for anyone that is wondering about what signs to watch out for regarding cancer. Steve’s words are powerful, “Aches and pains you can live with. Lumps and bumps you can die from.” Steve and Lori know that no one has had Merkel Cell Cancer twice and lived through it. “If Merkel Cell Cancer returns I will not fight it. I can’t go through what I’ve already gone through twice,” said Steve.
Lori physically inspects Steve’s head, face, and neck for signs of skin cancer each time she tends to him. Years after his initial surgery, Steve had a large spot on the top of his hairline that was clearly cancer. Steve explained, “When they found out it was Squamish Skin Cancer they hugged each other and celebrated. “The nurse looked at us strangely and I told her, ‘If it ain’t Merkel Cell Cancer it’s a nothing cancer.’ ”
Steve later learned that the type of Merkel Cell Cancer he had was very rare and had taken the lives of the eight people that were receiving treatment at UC Davis the same time he was. The Strempkes believe the lifting from Fallon’s Holy Trinity Church, prayer groups, bible studies conducted at their house when Steve was too sick to leave his bed, and the participation in church activities contributed to Steve’s recovery.
Today, Steve drives the Veteran’s Administration Van twice a month between Fallon and Reno. Steve feels that he needs to pay it back. “I was an active member in the military and worked as a civilian for many years. I’m retired and have time, plus it keeps me busy. I visit with the veterans about their treatments and I hope I’m a testament to them, but there are those who tend to want to keep to themselves and I respect that.”
Steve has a core courage within himself that many of us probably don’t possess. Steve lifts others by walking confidently amongst us without feeling any of society’s pressures with regards to the definition of what normal is.
He eats at our local restaurants and shops at our shopping centers, worships at his church, and even understands your stares and the questions that might be forming in your thoughts. He’s a lifter because he doesn’t shy away from being who he is. He has battle scars of a warrior who fought for his life and Lori continues to lift Steve and show how compassion for someone you love is the ultimate gift. Steve and Lori are heavy lifters.