OWATONNA — There are days Terri Grose wonders if she’ll ever make it back to her classroom at St. Mary’s School in Owatonna.
“I miss them. I miss the kids. I miss the staff,” she said.
This year would’ve marked Grose’s 37th as the physical education teacher at St. Mary’s, but an unexpected turn of events last summer prevented her from starting the school year.
It was actually as an education assistant running and playing tag with the students during summer school in August that she started to feel some abdominal pain.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “I was around kids, and it was the last day, so I thought maybe I was just getting a virus.”
But the pain persisted and Grose started gaining weight despite exercising regularly, and when the Steele County Free Fair rolled around on Aug. 16, it was difficult to walk, eat and drink fluids.
“It was awful,” she said. “I knew there was something wrong.”
Grose, who has four sisters, thought it could be her gallbladder, especially since she is one of two siblings who hadn’t had the organ removed. After speaking with her family physician and friend, she was scheduled for an ultrasound on Aug. 19 in Owatonna.
It wasn’t her gallbladder.
The doctor had Grose complete some blood work before sending her home and later calling her back for a CT scan.
“When Diane [Wallner] called me, she said, ‘You have cancer.’ I said, ‘I have cancer?” She said, ‘You have cancer,” she recalls. “I started crying and she started crying, and I said, ‘Di, I don’t want to die.’ I remember that.”
The CT scan showed her ovaries as the size of softballs, which is unusual for postmenopausal women whose ovaries are the size of a peanut.
Grose was diagnosed with Stage 3C ovarian cancer.
“She told me that I had a long road ahead of me, that I needed to get my prayer chain going, and to check into short-term and long-term disability,” she said. “At that point, I said, ‘Really Di, this is not going to be that long.’ She said, ‘I’m afraid so.’”
Grose, who is also the St. Mary’s athletic director, had one week to prepare a long-term substitute and get fall sports going before her treatment began.
“I was done,” she said. “I couldn’t think about school. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to: I did, oh, there were days I’d cry.”
On Aug. 26, Grose, who was accompanied by her caregiver Jodi Callister, had a consult with a surgeon at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and when she arrived, the surgeon asked her if she wanted the fluid in her abdominal area drained before having surgery on Monday.
“It was bad. I was so uncomfortable,” Grose said. “They drained 10 pounds.”
And on Aug. 29, Grose arrived in Rochester for surgery, which took nine hours as medical staff performed a hysterectomy and removed her spleen, appendix, a foot of her colon, some of her stomach and six of her 33 lymph nodes as well as scraped hundreds of tumors from her omentum, diaphragm and abdomen.
“When they came and gave us an update, [the surgeon] said he got 99.9 percent of the tumors,” Callister said. “He said if there were any other tumors in there, they were immeasurable, and by that he meant less than one millimeter.”
After surgery, Grose was transferred to the intensive care unit, which wasn’t planned.
“I was supposed to go to a regular room, but it’s a good thing I didn’t,” she said.
Nearly five hours after Grose’s surgery was completed, her blood pressure started to drop and she experience disseminated intravascular coagulation, a condition affecting the blood’s ability to clot and stop bleeding.
“Basically she was internally bleeding and her organs were starting to shut down,” Callister said.
The blood product that was being pumped into Grose’s body started to pool in her abdominal area, putting additional pressure on her lungs and making it difficult to breathe, so she was sedated and given a breathing tube.
Between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. Grose received 22 units of blood product. She stayed in ICU for four nights and was transferred to a regular room for two nights before being discharged from the hospital on Labor Day.
After recovering from her surgery, Grose started her 18 weeks of chemotherapy in Rochester on Sept. 22. It was administered once a week for three weeks before she met with an oncologist.
During her first oncologist visit on Oct. 15 after three weeks of chemotherapy, Grose’s white blood cell count, heart rate and platelets came back high, and she was admitted to the hospital for a week-long stay, where she received antibiotics while doctors tried to determine where she had an infection.
“They could never pinpoint where the infection was, but they narrowed it down to somewhere in the abdomen area,” Callister said.
When Grose was discharged from the hospital on Oct. 20, she was scheduled for a week of infusions in Owatonna to maintain progress, and on Halloween, she continued with her remaining chemotherapy appointments in Rochester.
“After that pretty much all of her blood work for chemo has been good,” Callister said. “She never missed another treatment.”
Grose completed her chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 9, and a follow-up appointment with the oncologist this week will determine her next steps.
Grose is one of four recipients for the ninth annual From the Heart half-marathon that provides emotional, physical and financial support to families dealing with cancer.
“I could not believe it,” she said. “I am honored, overwhelmed and very humbled that people actually contacted Beth [Svenby, event organizer] to submit my name.”
Grose said the support from the St. Mary’s staff, students and parents as well as alumni has also been overwhelming. Family, friends and even people who don’t know her have provided encouragement through cards, prayers and fundraisers throughout her journey.
And while she hopes to return to the classroom this year yet, Grose said “it’s pretty much wait and see.”
“My oncologist kind of laughed at me when I saw her two weeks ago and said that. She goes, ‘Terri, I don’t think you realize everything you’ve gone through from your major surgery to chemo to now,’ and to be honest, I think she’s right,” she said. “It’s like it’s done, it’s over, but it’s not. If I were to go back tomorrow, there’s no way I’d make it.”
But it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be there.
“I can’t say enough about St. Mary’s,” Grose said. “I love what I do and those kids.”