A 29-year-old aspiring bodybuilder walks into Anytime Fitness. Wearing track pants and a hoodie, he sits down at the bicep curl machine and inserts the peg at the machine’s heaviest weight setting. He does 10 reps, grunts a little and receives encouragement and assists from his personal trainer. He finishes off with a drink of water.
Watching from the side, you’d never guess that Isaac Gorham is disabled. The fact that he spent five months in the hospital with stage 4 glioblastoma brain cancer does not show.
Doctors told Isaac’s mother, Liz Hedine, that he might never wake up, walk or talk ever again.
“It was shocking. It didn’t kick in for a while. We just went into panic and survival mode for a couple weeks,” said Kiley Gorham, Isaac’s sister.
However, two years after diagnosis, he is doing all three of those tasks once thought impossible.
While he is able to mostly speak in only short sentences, he can walk and exercise on a daily basis.
“The fact that he’s doing what he’s doing is amazing,” Hedine said. “It’s just amazing how the brain finds its way to rewire and adapt.”
Isaac has cortical blindness and injuries to his brain as a result of his cancer and having multiple strokes. Cortical blindness happens when there’s damage to the brain's occipital cortex. Isaac can see light and darkness, but can’t make out shapes. He hasn’t learned to read braille or write legibly. He also has some memory issues.
But even though he is disabled, he is doing a lot better than he was two years ago.
“(My recovery) means a lot. It means the whole world; it means everything,” he said.
Isaac will be one of four people honored at the Humor to Fight the Tumor gala Sept. 7 at the Depot in Minneapolis. A video will be shown of him, and his family will give a brief speech about his journey.
Humor to Fight the Tumor raises money for those affected by brain tumors and for those researching treatments. The once a year gala includes silent and live auctions, live comedy, a dinner and storytelling from brain tumor survivors and honorees.
“It is a pretty big honor. I love the cause. I love what they do,” Hedine said.
An awful situation
Isaac was a pre-medical student at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks in April 2017. Once he found out he had a brain tumor, he signed up to be part of the glioblastoma research program at the Mayo Clinic.
He was supposed to be a participant for treatment trial programs because he had a rare genetic mutation for longevity. The Mayo Clinic was excited to have him participate.
However, his path changed from research participant to patient once he started having strokes. Now, he has to go back to the hospital every other month for the rest of his life.
Treatment that spring and summer lasted five months. “It was definitely traumatizing, seeing my big brother go through all this. It was very vulnerable and scary. I just kind of had to power through,” Kiley said.
Isaac was dealing with brain swelling and fevers, and had a cerebral shunt put in to stop the swelling near the end of his release from the Mayo Clinic. His family wanted to get him into therapy when he was discharged.
However, within 24 hours of release, Isaac’s family had to turn around and bring him back. His shunt was leaking out his back.
“There would be incisions or something would find a way to release fluid, there was just that much pressure going on,” Hedine said.
He almost hit the record for the longest time on the neurological floor at St. Mary’s in Rochester, she said, because of all the issues and complications.
Isaac went through physical, occupational, speech and recreational therapy.
“He could barely lift a little ball. They really put him through the gamut,” she said.
During the first six months he was home, Isaac underwent chemotherapy, with his last round in March 2018. He mostly slept during those months.
While he has recovered significantly since then, Isaac is still working through some issues.
The first few days after surgery, he couldn’t remember who his family was. While he fully remembers who his family and friends are now, he often sees visual images such as monsters and is frightened.
He has family by his side to help him through the struggles. Besides his mother, Isaac has his stepfather, Paul Hedine, and his father, Scott Gorham, checking in on him. In addition to Kiley, he has two half-sisters living in Florida and Grand Forks. Grandparents have been helpful and friends have set up a care calendar to help with Isaac.
Jay Jenson, a friend for years and pastor at Isaac’s church, meets with him three times a week for training in the gym.
Isaac used to be an avid bodybuilder before he was diagnosed. “That never left his mind. So that’s why (what he can do in) the gym is pretty remarkable,” Hedine said.
She said taking care of Isaac every day has given her a respect for caretakers. She works at Praise FM Radio, which allowed her to do most of her work from home. But there also are a lot of moments of grief.
“Your whole life changes. You’re not doing what you used to do. You’d rather it be you instead of your child,” Hedine said. While she is happy for friends’ children who get married, watching milestones for others has been one of the toughest parts. She relies on her faith to keep her going, and she prays for and believes in miracles.
Kiley said it’s been hard hanging out with her brother now.
“It’s obviously different, he’s struggling a little bit and kind of gets scared and it’s hard to be there when I don't know what he’s experiencing,” Kiley said. But she said there’s no way she couldn’t be there for him either.
However Kiley still has fun with her brother, playing and singing music from when they were growing up together. Star Wars music is something Isaac remembers.
“It’s like learning a whole new person. He’s not the sibling she grew up with,” Hedine said.
Doctors are still unsure of what Isaac’s condition will be in the future. Isaac said the main steps ahead are making sure the cancer and strokes don’t come back.
Besides all the hospital bills that insurance doesn’t cover, the family is also dealing with leftover student loans from Isaac’s college years.
“Going through something like this is not cheap,” Hedine said.