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When San Francisco Giants pitcher Dave Dravecky took his place on the mound in Montreal in August 1989, the occasion continued Dravecky’s triumphant return to the world of professional baseball. Just five days earlier, he had rejoined the major leagues following a cancer diagnosis and surgery that removed half of the deltoid muscle in his pitching arm, defying doctors who had told Dravecky that he would never pitch again. Unfortunately, the celebration was short lived.

After pitching three no-hit innings, fans noticed that Dravecky was starting to look a little shaky. First, he allowed the lead-off batter a home run, then he hit the second batter. Finally, as he was releasing a pitch in the sixth inning, Dravecky crumpled to the ground; his humerus bone had snapped — an audible break heard as far away as third base.

The cancer had returned.

“As an athlete and someone who took great pride in being healthy and in shape, I had a sense of invincibility up to that point,” Dravecky says. “You think that cancer always happens to some other guy who is not in touch with his health. It hit hard, really hard. All of a sudden, I wasn’t concerned about whether I was going to play ball or not, but whether I was going to live or die.”

Doctors recommended that Dravecky’s arm be amputated, and after suffering through tremendous physical pain, the left-handed pitcher agreed. He said that he began to rely on his wife, Jan, to help him navigate very unfamiliar terrain.

“In one minute, you can go from feeling completely in control to realizing you have no control,” Dravecky recalls. “The severity of what I was about to face didn’t register with me, and I’m grateful that Jan was able to ask questions and really be my advocate. It’s very different to lean on other people when you’ve been the one who is so self-sufficient.”

Dravecky says that his faith, long a source of comfort in his life, was shaken “to its very foundation.” The cancer, the subsequent surgeries and the amputation left him feeling emotionally “exposed and raw.”

“In the beginning, I was so focused on getting through the first surgery,” he explains. “Then rehabilitation and returning to baseball became part of the journey. All of the people working with me had the same goal — for me to pitch again. I remember my trainer told me to imagine that I was in a prize fight, and when you throw those kinds of challenges in front of me, I salivate. Then, after baseball, things became cloudy; what kind of goal was there? As time went on and I continued to battle, I kept getting wearier and began to really struggle internally.”

dravecky3When Your Life Doesn’t Make Sense: Pain, Cancer, Depression & Marriage

While Dave was going through the health setbacks, treatments and emotional challenges of the cancer and amputation, Jan was dealing with the slate of responsibilities familiar to many caregivers. She was trying to support her husband and take care of the household. During the same period, she lost both of her parents and admits she didn’t take the time to grieve.

“I pushed and pushed and pushed myself,” Jan recalls. “I started having panic attacks, and I didn’t get any help. At first, Dave didn’t understand — he was the one with cancer and I was the one depressed. Dave was used to Superwoman, and then all of a sudden, I couldn’t get out of bed or drive myself to the store. I just kept going deeper and deeper into depression.”

The couple was at a crisis point in both their lives and their marriage.

“I was so desperate at that point that I just went into a Christian bookstore and cried out to God for help,” Jan says. “While there, I found a little book, When Your Life Doesn’t Make Sense, by Dr. Henry Cloud. It goes into the different reasons people go through deep depression. For the first time, I understood that it was not a lack of faith on my part. I was physically ill and needed counseling.”

“The first few weeks after the amputation, there was no more pain and I was focused on healing,” Dave says. “But Jan was reeling; she was just burned out. People encouraged me to get her help, so we started counseling together.”

The Turning Point

What started out as help for Jan became a turning point for the Draveckys’ marriage and lives. After three or four weeks, Dravecky says he “was the one sitting on the couch” and coming to a new understanding of who he and Jan were as a couple and individually. Although he thought he had been coping pretty well, he realized that he had been taking out his frustration and anger over the cancer diagnosis on his family, and he was determined to turn things around.

“Over the next 18 months, I had a lot of a-ha moments and all of them involved me being better able to communicate. At times, I was actually shocked in counseling sessions by what I had just said,” Dravecky says.

Jan was prescribed what she calls “vitamin P” or Prozac to help her with the physical symptoms of her depression. The counselor helped her and Dave learn to express their emotions in productive ways, and Jan said they left with coping techniques that they have used ever since.

New Skills; A New Inning

“The whole experience of what happened to Dave brought out the worst in us, our weaknesses,” she says. “Dave had constant phantom pain, and he dealt with the pain through anger. But we left with new tools, and looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. We learned about each other and how to appreciate our differences and not try to change the other person. It’s about being balanced.”

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Years later, the Draveckys knew a new chapter was beginning when they enjoyed a long-anticipated evening out.

“Our counselor had told us that he was there to get us through the process and to the other side,” says Dave. “He said that ‘The day I can look at you and say now it’s time for you two to go out together and begin as a new couple, then we’ll all go out together.’ As we went through our counseling, I wondered if it was ever going to happen, but then after 30 months, we went out to a comedy club as two couples. It was the perfect place and began a real friendship.”

dravecky44Today, the Draveckys use one of the darkest periods of their lives as inspiration to help others. They founded Endurance, a Christian-based nonprofit that provides free resources to people experiencing serious illness, loss or depression.

“We send out packages that are personalized and tailored to the individual’s needs,” Dave says. “There is no charge for families who need these resources and people can go to the website and see what’s offered. It’s about looking ahead when you find yourself in the wilderness or on a mountaintop and things are blurry.

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“Three and a half years of counseling intensified my understanding of learning how to live an authentic journey,” Dravecky concludes. “Today, I have a much different perspective, and as you get older, if you are open to seeing life for what it really is, then things will look different. Now, we both live in a community that offers the kind of love and support that helps you not only endure but persevere when you’re facing pain or anxiety, and that’s what we want to help others achieve as well.” {PP}