Battle for Bill's brain
High altitude and a headache likely saved Bill Platz's life.
That, and fast action from local and area medical professionals.
Bill, 60, was diagnosed in November with grade IV glioblastoma, an extremely aggressive malignant brain tumor. But the Mitchell resident, through a new study to develop a vaccine for glioblastomas and a quick response to remove the cancerous tumor, has made a remarkable recovery.
As a part of the process to remove the tumor, doctors removed part of his brain, yet he's still active in the community by raising money for Tour de Corn, thinking of ways to improve cycling trails around town and consulting with his customers on their crops.
Bill is an avid outdoorsman, known for his involvement in Palace City Pedalers bicycle club and Tour de Corn, and he's an agronomist by trade. Prior to being diagnosed, he was having nagging headaches for a while, but he took aspirin and the headaches went away, he said.
In November, he was in Wyoming hunting elk at about 4,400 feet above sea level. That's high elevation compared to Mitchell, which is about 1,300 feet above sea level.
"Just through being at a higher altitude might have promoted the tumor to expand or inflame," Bill said. "On the way home, the headache kept getting worse and worse. I woke up the next morning and my head was just killing me."
On Nov. 14, his wife, Paula, quickly took Bill to the emergency room at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, where their friend, Dr. Elizabeth Campbell, met them. An MRI revealed a large glioblastoma in the right temporal lobe of his brain.
He was put on a steroid to reduce the swelling and pressure on his eyes until he had an appointment with a specialist in Sioux Falls.
The Platzes credit Campbell with pushing their case to the most urgent levels. Within a week of his visit to the emergency room in Mitchell, Bill was scheduled with a specialist in Sioux Falls and was then off to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for surgery on Nov. 29.
Bill had his brain's entire right temporal lobe removed, which controls memory, nonverbal communication, voice pitch and personality.
Bill said he's had trouble with short-term memory, but his doctors say the left half of his brain took over the processes of the right half before the tumor was diagnosed. That compensated for any loss of motor function and coordination, Paula said.
Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Paula and Bill's business partner, Marty Phillips, noticed a change in Bill's personality.
"I asked Marty if he'd noticed a change," Paula said. "He did. Bill would lose focus and get easily agitated over trivial things."
Now, as he's recovering, Bill's spirit is different too, Paula said. He still has the same passions, but doesn't outwardly show his excitement as he used to.
Also, for about two or three months after his surgery, Bill's voice was very soft, Paula said.
"Sometimes you could hardly hear him," she added. His voice is now back to normal.
The Platzes have never been alone in their journey. From the first day, they've had help from friends who had medical connections to acquaintances who simply have wished them well with cards and phone calls. Their church family has also been a great blessing, they said, adding they can't possibly name everyone who has been there along the way.
When Bill was in Rochester for surgery to remove the tumor, Paula had 12 friends by her side for 13 hours.
"No wonder my head hurts," Bill said with a smile, referencing the length of his surgery.
Bill said the Mitchell community has been tremendous.
"People stepped up. We have great friends," he said. "The people of this community are awesome."
When he was diagnosed, he was quickly given the opportunity to take part in a clinical study regarding newly diagnosed glioblastomas. The study is called Phase I Study of a Dendritic Cell Vaccine for Patients With Either Newly Diagnosed or Recurrent Glioblastoma.
Bill is currently the only patient in the study, which uses a vaccine comprised of his own dendritic cells and proteins from other people's glioblastomas to enhance his immune system. Two other people are signed up for the study, but have not started, said Dr. Ian Parney, one of two doctors in charge of the study.
Dendritic cells help develop the body's adaptive immune system by gathering samplings of viruses, bacteria or other dangerous cells like tumor cells, and processing them in the body.
Because the cancer is being treated after it's discovered, the vaccine is considered a therapeutic vaccine, Parney added.
In combination with the vaccine, Bill completed several rounds of radiation therapy in January and just finished his last round of chemotherapy pills.
Bill receives several shots each month for the vaccination -- 30 shots the first month, 30 the second, and 10 shots each month since, Paula said. He's had 80 shots total and will have 10 more later this month.
The main goal of the trial is to determine whether the vaccine is safe, Parney said.
The end goal of the trial is to determine whether chemo and radiation combined with the vaccine can fight the cancer and if the vaccine can stimulate the immune system to fight to keep the tumor from recurring.
"We hope this will be beneficial for controlling growth of the tumor," Parney said. "But it's difficult to be certain of that on this small study."
Once this phase of the study is over, larger studies will determine the true benefit of the vaccine before it's approved by the FDA, Parney said.
So far, MRIs show Bill's brain is tumor-free.
There is no clear reason why the tumor developed, Paula said. Bill's neurosurgeon said it could have always been there, which is the best guess, or it could be from chemicals he's exposed to while working as an agronomist.
"But we can't attribute it to that," Paula said.
According to the American Brain Tumor Association, glioblastomas are most common in adults ages 45 to 65 and affect men more than women. New tumors, like Bill's, usually affect people over the age of 55.
Despite dealing with a major surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and dozens of shots in the last nine months, Bill is still living a normal life.
About a week after he completed radiation therapy in January, Bill was out on the slopes. An avid skiier, Bill taught Paula how to ski early in their relationship and the couple already planned at least two trips in February and into March. Parney said Bill likely wouldn't ski this season, but Bill was determined, Paula said.
Bill skiied at Terry Peak near Lead "like he hadn't had a craniotomy" three months prior, Paula said. In late February, Bill and Paula celebrated his 60th birthday in Colorado with college friends, again while skiing.
"Four weeks before he started chemotherapy again, somehow we got 25 days of skiing in," Paula said with a smile.
The couple were set for 60 days of skiing, but Bill said he couldn't quite handle it and was happy with the 25 days.
The Platzes are thankful the tumor was discovered when it was. From November to April, Bill's crop consulting business, Crop Tech Inc., isn't overly busy.
"So it was a time he didn't need to be there," Paula said. "In those months, he meets with farmers and they do crop planning."
During that time, his employees took care of business.
Bill was able to go back to work toward the middle of April and put in a 15.5-hour day. He met with clients and was out in the field evaluating crops. His evening was spent on the phone with a client.
"The next day he was just dehydrated, had a fever and he ended up in the emergency room that evening and was on IV fluids for four days," Paula said, looking at her husband with a wan smile. "After that, he decided at least while he's on chemo, he would cut back and let the employees do what he taught them to do."
Bill smiled back and added he's happy and thankful he has fantastic employees.
"That's the only thing that makes me cry, because who would do it if they wouldn't?" Paula said, wiping away tears. "They do everything exactly as he does. They make decisions when he's not there."
Although his employees check with Bill on major decisions, they are able to maintain day-to-day operations. For now, Bill remains an over-the-phone consulting agronomist and only goes out if he's absolutely needed.
In his spare time, Bill continues to ride bicycle about three days a week or so.
Every Sunday he participates in Single Track Sunday. In June, he helped build a new pump track -- a continuous loop of dirt berms and mounds -- at Kiwanis Woodlot Park.
He also continues to work on and build bicycles.
Although his chemotherapy sessions are complete, Bill will likely remain on the vaccine for quite some time.
"We were told initially 'forever,' " Paula said. "But it'll be at least one year on the vaccine, then make decisions after a year and see how the treatment is working."
Dr. Parney said Bill may continue to receive vaccinations for up to a year to ensure his immune system will fight the cancer.
"Bill is doing very well at the moment," Parney said. "But we're watching him very closely. He gets frequent MRIs and we follow up with him frequently."