10 hours to celebrate 10 years
Two Wednesdays from now, Minden resident Michael LaBarge, 38, will attempt to push his body to the utmost of its physical limitations.
His goal is simply to swim laps for 10 consecutive hours.
“People say, ‘Are you nuts?” LaBarge said. “That’s the general response.
“I come back with, ‘Hey, I played with Improvised Explosive Devices for a living, so yes, yes I am.’”
That’s LaBarge, though.
The retired Marine, who currently trains active Marines how to identify and avoid roadside bombs at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Pickle Meadows, has lived life on a razor’s edge for most of his adult life.
Ten years ago, just as Operation Iraqi Freedom was commencing, things took an unexpected turn for LaBarge.
Within a matter of days, he went from the front lines to a hospital bed in San Diego. He had a grapefruit-sized tumor removed from his head.
And he was told he had as little as two weeks to live.
April 2 of this year marked 10 years of proving that prognosis wrong.
And on May 1, LaBarge will swim for 10 hours — one commemorating each year of survival — at the Carson Valley Swim Center, in an effort to raise funds for the American Cancer Society.
“I’m trying not to think about (the swimming),” he said. “It’s just a matter of doing it. It’s kind of like jumping out of a plane for the first time. No one wants to do it.
“You just kind of have to not think about it and step up.”
From the time he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, Labarge knew there would be a time to give back.
“I was going in every Tuesday to get my blood drawn and with the chemotherapy, just being in the chemo ward, there were some depressing times.
“The idea started then, that maybe I can show people that having cancer is not the end of the world.”
He was a natural athlete, swimming competitively on a traveling team as a child in Wyoming.
“Swimming was just something I was good at,” LaBarge said. “I was a water survival instructor when I was on active duty, I did the diving training. It’s just something I like to do.”
Both pre- and post-cancer, he competed in triathlons.
“Swimming was always the best part,” he said. “I hate running. I hate cycling, but triathletes are cool. So I decided to do that.
“Swimming to kind of celebrate 10 years, I guess it just made sense.”
LaBarge approached the Carson Valley Swim Center, which he said was happy to help out and turned down his offer to rent a lane for May 1. Instead he’ll swim free of charge.
“They went above and beyond to help me out,” he said.
He also set up a donations page on the American Cancer Society “Team ACS” Web page.
In preparation, he’s been swimming as often as he can — although with up to 17-hour shifts at the base, that hasn’t always come easily — and working out at the gym.
His wife will be there the day of the swim, along with friends from the base.
“It’ll be 10 hours, minus breaks for the bathroom and things,” he said.
Daunting, surely, but it’s not like LaBarge hasn’t faced tougher obstacles.
LaBarge was in Kuwait preparing for Iraqi Freedom in March of 2003 when he came down with what he termed the worst headache of his life.
It lasted for three days and didn’t respond medicine.
His left arm went numb several times, which prompted doctors to run EKG testing in case LaBarge was having a heart attack. He wasn’t.
He was unaware that his speech had become slurred and he had difficulty walking in a straight line.
When pointed in a certain direction, he’d end up walking five feet away from the intended destination.
All of the symptoms disappeared the night the war started — March 20, 2003.
Still, he was sent back to the United States after a CAT scan revealed fluid around a mass in his head.
“They found a grapefruit sized tumor between my brain and my skull,” he said. “This was a Thursday. They said I could have surgery Friday or Monday.
“I opted for Friday. The surgery went well, they didn’t end up actually having to touch my brain.”
Pathology came back April 2, 2003. It was LaBarge’s oldest daughter Caitlin’s fifth birthday.
It was cancer. Grade 4.
“They gave me between two weeks and 10 months,” LaBarge said. “That’s the typical life expectancy.”
Six weeks of radiation treatment with chemotherapy followed, then another year of chemotherapy alone.
“I always tell people that if I had to have a tumor, my brain was the safest place for me to have it, because I don’t use it very much,” he said with a laugh. “Because it is brain cancer, you can never be termed ‘cancer-free.’ They can’t take that extra margin of tissue out like they can with skin cancer.
“But, with time, I got better.”
LaBarge was returned to active duty where he served as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician.
He was transferred to temporary disability retirement in 2006 and was permanently retired in May of 2011.
In between, he began working at Pickel Meadows in 2007 after a stint at Camp Pendleton.
LaBarge underwent emergency surgery in 2009 after suffering an infection from the titanium plate that had been placed in his head during the original surgery.
“I had a seizure and ended up going back down to San Diego where they removed the plate and took out some extra bone,” LaBarge said. “They put me on some pretty hefty IV antibiotics, my wife had to administer those at home. They put a new skull piece in and it’s been good.”
LaBarge said he and his wife are enjoying Carson Valley. They live close to the pool and celebrated the birth of a baby girl, Claire, nine months ago. During his treatment, LaBarge was given about a 5 percent chance of having another baby.
He thanked the doctors from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, specifically Cpt. George Luiken, Lt. Cmdr. Arnett Klugh, neurosurgeon Nick Theodore and Cmdr. Thomas Chung.
LaBarge will start swimming May 1 at approximately 6 a.m. and finish around 4 p.m. He’s swimming in memory of his uncles, Bob and Tim Harrigan, who both died from cancer. One had the same tumor LaBarge had.
“I try not to take things too seriously,” LaBarge said. “In all honesty, it seems to me like I am living on borrowed time. Looking back at the last 10 years, I guess you could say I’ve been pretty blessed.”