Jaco Fourie: husband, father, volunteer firefighter and brain cancer survivor!
Jaco’s inspiring story highlights the power of positive thinking, determination, immense courage and the incredible support of friends, and shows too the vital role a strong physical body and active lifestyle can play in aiding a miraculous recovery.
On Thursday, 12 September 2019, Jaco Fourie’s life changed in an instant when he suffered a seizure that would demand unprecedented strength and courage from both Jaco, and his family.
“The day started pretty much the same as any other – an early start that saw me drop my seven-year-old son at school en route to the office,” recounts Jaco. A production manager, Jaco’s job saw him pretty much on his feet all day. However, as an avid fitness junkie (with countless park runs, hiking trails and half marathons to his name and his early years spent excelling in cross country and karate), a typical day also included a brisk 3km walk every lunch hour if not an actual 21km run to and from the office. All of this, of course, over and above the intense and grueling training required of volunteer firefighters.
But that afternoon, post his run, Jaco’s world came crashing down. “I was talking to a colleague and suddenly felt my face pulling to the side.” Jaco can’t remember much else. He lost control of his body and collapsed. “I woke up ten minutes later, on a couch in the boardroom, with no real memory of how I got there.”
And then it got really scary!
Jaco had been experiencing tingling and numbness in his arm for quite a few months, but every medical opinion had put it down to the stress of his mother’s passing a year earlier. Upon hearing his history, as well as due to his loss of consciousness, the hospital staff admitted Jaco for tests with a CT scan that afternoon indicating a mass on the brain and swelling. An MRI the next morning (the first of many over the coming months) saw Jaco diagnosed with a massive brain tumor. The size of an orange, the tumor was not only completely intertwined and part of the actual brain tissue but, was situated dangerously close to his centre for gross motor function as well as speech, sight and hearing.
“It was very unreal to think something that size was growing in my head and I was still functioning normally,” continues Jaco. “I’m the type of person who when faced with a problem, wants to fix it. My first thought and words were, ‘cut it out’. But then it sank in just how serious this was!”
On Friday, 20 September 2019, barely a week later, Jaco underwent massive brain surgery to try and remove as much of the brain tumor as possible.
A team of no fewer than 20 professionals were involved from neurosurgeons and anesthetists to a brain mapping team as well as a speech therapist, whose role was to monitor Jaco’s speech throughout the operation (and other faculties). To do this, it would need to be an ‘awake’ surgery to allow the team to be more accurate in removing as much of the tumor as possible with as little deficits or risk of brain damage. Depending on how long Jaco could cope, the neurosurgeon had hoped that the ‘awake’ portion of the surgery would be able to last for at least an hour, with the entire operation taking approximately seven to eight hours.
It is testimony not only to his incredibly strong mind but also his strong physical body that, apart from roughly the first hour in surgery when he was completely ‘under’ and not conscious to allow the doctors to make the necessary incisions in his skull and place his head in an immovable ‘cage’, Jaco underwent no fewer than an unprecedented five to six hours of brain surgery with three and a half hours of it in an ‘awake’ state. During this time, not only did he make some really bad jokes, but by mid-afternoon was requesting something to drink.
“The surgery itself wasn’t bad, as I really can’t recall most of it,” says Jaco. “But the hardest part was, without a doubt, having to say goodbye to my wife and son, not really knowing whether or not I would ever see them again.”
After spending six days in ICU, flat on his back and heavily sedated, Jaco was eventually moved to a general ward on 25 September 2019. It would be another week before he would finally be allowed to see his son. But when that time came … it was the best part!
On 1 October 2019, Jaco went home!
But the journey was far from over.
With the initial test results indicating conflicting information, tissue samples were sent overseas for further analysis. Two weeks after Jaco returned home, he received the cancer diagnosis. With two possible treatment options available to him, ‘wait and see what happens’ or undergo radiation, Jaco chose the latter. Known as an Oligodendroglioma Grade 2 tumor, it can also be treated with chemotherapy should radiation prove unsuccessful.
“It’s quite something to get your head around being diagnosed with brain cancer and for quite a while I don’t think it really sunk in,” continues Jaco. “To use the word ‘cancer’, not to mention ‘brain cancer’, in relation to oneself is not something I think anyone is ever prepared for.”
It has now been eight months since the seizure that altered the trajectory of his life. After undergoing intensive radiation in November 2019, Jaco will continue to have quarterly MRI check-ups for at least the first year, thereafter every six months. Whilst his brain is still healing, the most recent MRI (April 2020) indicated that the tumor residue left behind in surgery is showing no indication of growth, or cancer!.
Massive brain surgery, radiation and five MRIs later, Jaco continues to smash the barriers of what is considered possible. Since the start of lockdown Jaco has been training hard, trying to boost his running speed. When lockdown started, 10km on the treadmill was almost impossible. But … he has been running every single day, sometimes twice a day, to reach his goal. And now, 10km is easy! Early May saw Jaco attempt his first ‘outside’ run, accomplishing his PB (personal best) in almost 20 years followed by his first ever 21km run on the treadmill later that month.
He is fitter and stronger than ever before and ready for this year’s firefighting season.
Keep Going Jaco!