Why is Pat Forte alive?
Even the former Brainerd High School boys' hockey coach and former Lincoln Elementary School fifth-grade teacher asks himself that question after enduring four chest operations for thymic carcinoid, a rare cancer that attacked his lungs and pericardium.
To be honest, I wonder why I survived it, Forte said last week at the Brainerd Area Civic Center after coaching the Sartell Sabres junior varsity against the Warriors' JV. Obviously, there's a bigger purpose for my life.
I've got an 8 1/2-year-old son (Nico) that I love dearly. That was my biggest driving force to get better. I was very close to my father. I just wanted to be with my son.
Forte's ordeal began Feb. 24, 2006. He wasn't feeling well, went in for treatment of what he thought was an asthmatic condition and eventually was hospitalized in St. Cloud.
Former Brainerd Warriors coach Pat Forte guided the Sartell junior varsity boys' hockey team against Brainerd Feb. 17. Forte is recovering from a rare cancer.
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His life was about to spiral out of control.
On March 2 (2006) a doctor came into my room at 7 in the morning, and told me I had Stage 4 cancer, that I had six months to live, to get my stuff in order, Forte said. I made 10 calls that morning and didn't remember making any of them. It was a pretty scary time.
Things got scarier. He was eventually hospitalized at the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center and news about his cancer seemed to get worse and worse.
It was a rare cancer, there was no research done on it, I had a better chance of winning the lottery, Forte said. It was resistant to chemo and radiation. Without shrinking it, they didn't know if it was operable, but they were going to try.
Doctors prescribed a drug used to treat kidney cancer.
Enough to where it released (the tumor) from my heart, Forte said. They still ended up having to do four operations, one was 12 hours long.
Before the 12-hour operation Forte was asked by surgeons if he wanted to know his chances of survival.
"Afterward they told me there was about a one in three chance of dying on the table," he said.
Forte's right lung was removed, his heart moved to the right side of his chest. The veins coming out of and surrounding his heart are made of GORE-TEX, a waterproof material.
"Ten days after surgery, I got an infection in my chest," Forte said, "and I had to go in for emergency surgery at 10:15 at night. The doctor told me, 'If it hits any of that GORE-TEX it's fatal,' and I said, 'When will I know?' and he said, 'If you wake up!' That was the last thing that was going through my mind when they put the mask on me and put me to sleep.
"I think the doctors are just as happy as I am. They're pretty proud when I walk in. As my one doctor said, 'We dodged a bullet.' It's been quite a ride."
The ride forced Forte to be hospitalized for 61 days and take more than a year off from his teaching position at Kennedy Community School in St. Joseph near St. Cloud.
"The drug I was on made me tired, fatigued," he said. "The surgery was so enormous that it took a long time to rehab. I was down to one lung. If I walked a block I would sleep the rest of the day. I was probably 35-40 pounds lighter than I am now.
"It was a long, long haul back. It took a lot of discipline, a lot of prayers, a lot of luck along the way."
Forte coached the Warriors from 1991-92 through 1996-97, compiling an 80-53-5 record (.602) and winning two Central Lakes Conference championships. He taught in Brainerd two more years before leaving.
"I love the area, I love coming back, I love the facility here," Forte said. "I wish I would have never left. Some of my best friends are still here."
He left to become head coach at St. Cloud Apollo where he coached one season (1999-2000). He then coached a Select 17 team for six years and in the Elite I High School Hockey League for a few years before getting cancer.
Forte had been out of high school hockey for eight years when he heard of the opening on Sartell's staff. He applied and was hired.
In the two years before Forte arrived the Sabres' JV won two of 50 games. This season they finished 16-8-1, including 8-1-1 in their last 10 games.
"I know cold rinks are hard on my lung," Forte said. "On the other hand (coaching hockey is) something I like to do. I wanted to get back into it, and I thought JV would be something fun to get back into.
"Actually, it's been a blast. I've been blessed to have really good kids, and some good players. They've bought into what we've been teaching. It's also been a lot of fun helping out with the varsity. You get the competitive juices out of your system. It gives you something to look forward to also."
Today, the 43-year-old is cancer free has to look forward to a series of chest scans. Since his last surgery he had been returning to the U every three months for scans. The frequency has since been adjusted from three to six to eight months.
"The day of the scan is always nerve-wracking," Forte said, "but when you get a clean bill of health it's the best day of your week, that's for sure."
MIKE BIALKA may be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.
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