In 1988, a young David Rudd would wake early to walk the halls of Indiana University Hospital as the Beach Boys serenaded each step in his ears.
He would pause to eat breakfast, then grab his IV pole to begin walking again.
“I would walk the hallways continuously. Walk, walk, walk, walk, pushing my pole with all of my crap on me and everything.
“I was sicker than a dog.”
He didn’t want to be cooped up in the hospital room. He knew the odds.
“One thing the doctors I had told me that probably 80 percent of the people who die don’t die because of the disease; they die because of pneumonia or something like that, some other side effect,” Rudd said.
At the end of 1987, David and his wife, Gloria, had just returned from a vacation in Mexico. Every joint in his body hurt and he was tired all the time.
He decided to pay a visit to his friend, Dr. William “Bill” Howard. Doc Howard ordered a blood test. His nurse counted 11 white blood cells.
“He told her the machine must be broke,” David said.
Howard suggested that David go see pediatrician Dr. James Shaeffer in Bloomington. He specialized in infectious diseases and was experimenting with cancer treatment on his own.
“When Doc Howard called him, he said, ‘I have a 33-year-old baby here that I need you to help me with,’’ Gloria said.
“(Shaeffer) said, ‘Oh, you have probably typhoid fever from being down in Mexico. No biggie,’” David said.
He was ushered into a children’s exam room, decorated with ducks, for some tests.
That evening, Shaeffer stood in the doorway and told David he had acute myeloid leukemia, a fast-acting cancer.
“I thought I was going to die, because everything that I had heard of up until that point, you don’t survive leukemia,” Rudd said.
Shaeffer gave him three options to consider: He could try to treat him at Bloomington Hospital; he could go to IU Hospital in Indianapolis where they were making breakthroughs on treatment; or David could go home, do nothing and die.
“At the time, I felt somebody had just hit me in the head with a ball bat,” David said.
As he was walking out of the door, Shaeffer said he would give him five minutes to make up his mind.
“It wasn’t two minutes later, he comes walking back in the room and says, ‘I made up your mind for you. You’re going to IU,’” Rudd said.
Rudd was immediately taken by ambulance to the Indianapolis hospital where he would stay the majority of the next six months, receiving chemotherapy.
“What they normally gave over a three-year period, they gave me in three months,” he said.
He was told he was the second person to ever receive the treatment there.
He had breaks between treatments for a few weeks. “It went on and on. We’d barely get home, maybe spend one night or something. They’d think he was well enough and then something would happen. I don’t think you spent one night at home,” Gloria said.
“It felt like I was already institutionalized, where I was unsure of the outside,” David Rudd said about the time he wasn’t in the hospital. “The safety of the hospital and everything, the security part of it, I was unsure. That bothered me, to be on the outside and not be with the doctors.”
His brother, John, would bring him Shapiro’s or Chinese food every other night he would visit.
Gloria never left his side. She slept on cots, on ottomans pushed together and in chairs, since the couple couldn’t afford hotel rooms.
And every morning, David would get up and walk.
“There was one little girl. She had leukemia. I begged her to get up and walk with me. I mean, begged. She didn’t. She laid in bed, got pneumonia and died,” he said.
“This little girl, she was such a sweetheart,” Gloria said. “You get so attached to those ones, and then David would lay in his room and hear (people dying).”
‘I had it made’
Rudd managed to stay positive thanks to the team of doctors caring for him. “I had it made. I had the best doctors you could ask for,” he said.
He kept himself entertained by making friends with the hospital staff. If a nurse was not at the ward desk, the staff would have him sit at the desk and answer intercom calls from the other rooms.
“He was known,” Gloria said.
One time, someone brought him a balloon that looked like a big black spider. “Of course it was weighted down a little bit, so it would be on the ground, and I attached one of my IV poles to it. I put sunglasses on and walked around through there like I was blind with a cane and everything,” he said.
He wasn’t afraid to make fun of himself, either.
“I’d tell people I was 30 years old going out of puberty because (the chemo) wiped out every hair on my body,” he said.
Each morning, the team of doctors would line up around his bed. One medical student, Michael Dugan, stood at his feet.
“I’d look up at him, I’d say, ‘Well, Michael, you do realize one thing, don’t you? He said, ‘What’s that?’ (I said), ‘(Expletive) runs downhill and you’re at the bottom.’”
After six months, Rudd was in remission.
“The night I got released from the hospital with the cancer, Michael Dugan came walking in. … He said, ‘Come on, you’re going with me.’”
The went to see the Beach Boys perform at the Indiana State Fair.
The two have remained friends all this time. Last year, they went to the see the Beach Boys again at White River Gardens.
Rudd, who works mowing in the county, even helps Dugan with his lawn mower maintenance.
Dugan described David as “a crusty old codger with a heart of gold.”
“He comes out as gruff on the outside, but he’s good people. He’d do anything for anybody,” he said.
Dugan now treats acute leukemia and does bone marrow transplants at Franciscan Health in Indianapolis.
“Dr. Dugan is recognized as one of the best cancer doctors,” Gloria said.
Dugan wasn’t the only doctor David befriended. He’d walk into the doctors’ lounge and find a chair. They’d watch ballgames together.
Rudd said he even began writing his own orders for the day and another doctor would sign off on it.
After six months, he was in remission. He continued to go for checkups every month.
Then, six years later, he received bad news again.
‘Most blessed person’
While at IU Hospital, Rudd had received a blood transfusion that gave him hepatitis C. When checking his blood work, doctors were only looking for cancer.
“It was the year right before they started checking for hep C,” David Rudd said.
Ten years later, Rudd received more bad news: He had to have a liver transplant due to cirrhosis.
While he was waiting for a match, the artery between his heart and liver ruptured as he was on his way to a county council meeting. He served on the Brown County Council for 16 years and is finishing his second year on the Nashville Town Council.
He had about six weeks to live. Finding a match could take up to five years, he was told.
For him, took 20 days.
“I’ll tell anybody I am the most blessed person in the world,” he said.
The liver he received also was infected with hepatitis C, but he didn’t have much choice.
“Either he takes it, or he would have been dead in the next day or two,” Gloria said.
The transplant, which came from a donor in South Carolina, ended up getting lost in Atlanta. The doctor had said it was possible it would not work after being on ice for too long. But it worked, and David received three rounds of chemotherapy to treat it. That didn’t cure the hepatitis C, though.
This past year, he started taking Harvoni, a new medication. He’s now hepatitis C-free.
That disease wasn’t his only surgery complication. While doing the transplant, a surgeon accidentally cut his bowel, causing him to develop peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane lining the abdominal wall. One option was to have a surgery to re-route the stomach that could not be reversed, or to go on a feeding tube for six months in order for the hole to heal.
David decided to go on a feeding tube. But he didn’t let it slow him down.
“I would mow during the day, quit at about 4 or 5, then load up on water and food all night long through the veins. I get up and go to work the next day,” he said.
As of January this year, Rudd’s liver was still in remission, along with his leukemia.
His advice for anyone currently battling cancer? Fight it.
“You’ve got to have the right mind-set. You can’t let it get you,” he said.
Dugan said Rudd’s urge to get up and keep going is one of the reasons he’s still here.
“The patients that do it the right way are the ones that do well. He never stayed in the bed. No matter how bad he felt, he was out pounding the tiles with his IV pole,” he said.
“He willed himself to push through everything. The patients who go to bed and wait to feel better are the ones who don’t do well.
“It’s a simple thing, but it makes a difference.”
Family: Gloria, wife of 44 years; four step-children; six stepgrandchildren
Cancer type: Acute myeloid leukemia