During his days as a top-notch prep and college athlete and as a longtime boys basketball coach, Joel McDonald relied on a positive attitude and competitive spirit to carry him through.
He’s using the same beliefs now in his toughest battle off the court.
The 47-year-old Hibbing coach is home recovering after undergoing surgery July 14 at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, to remove his cancerous bladder and install a neobladder made from his small intestine.
While the physical recovery takes time, the mental and emotional toll is ongoing.
“There were a few times where the emotion of all that gets to you,” McDonald recalled by phone last week. “When my wife (Carrie) and I came back and had the (consultation with doctors) in May, I broke down in the car on the way home. There’s no question that you ask yourself or the powers that be how this happens to me, but for the most part when you get stuck in that situation you are more easily depressed and feel sorry for yourself.
“Then you realize that with (the COVID-19 pandemic), how many people across the planet are dealing with things that are incredibly challenging for them. I think to stay sane, you have to turn your attention to the future.”
Now, after a successful surgery and being deemed cancer-free, that future includes a return to the Hibbing High School classroom, where McDonald teaches senior world geography and sophomore world history, and to the basketball court for his 22nd season as the Bluejackets’ boys coach.
“I have no other plans than to do it,” McDonald said of resuming teaching when the high school opens its doors Sept. 1 for in-person learning. “I am crossing my fingers and hoping there will be a (basketball) season. It’s fair to expect some kind of an adjusted season, but hopefully by the time January rolls around we will have a better idea of what’s happening with COVID.”
McDonald, who was first diagnosed last October with the same affliction that killed his mother, Darlene, in 1997, found out in May that the cancer had returned to his bladder. That was despite undergoing immunotherapy treatment known as Bacillus Calmette-Guerin, where live tuberculosis bacteria was inserted into the bladder in the hopes of producing antibodies to build up immunity to the cancer cells.
He had a couple months ahead of time to prepare for the surgery.
“What I did more than anything else was enjoy the time with my family and friends,” McDonald said. “I tried not to think about it too much because it’s a scary thought.”
Surgeon Igor Frank performed robotic surgery, making seven incisions to remove McDonald’s bladder, prostate and portions of his lymph nodes and urethra and then reattaching a new bladder. A later biopsy showed cancer cells had not become invasive elsewhere in his body.
“Dr. Frank came in (to the recovery room) and said that it went perfectly and that there wasn’t a single issue in the six hours of surgery as far as anything he saw as a challenge,” McDonald said. “He was very happy with how everything was taken apart and put back together again. That made me feel good.”
McDonald was discharged on a Saturday and went to stay with sister-in-law Tina Simberg in Blaine, Minnesota, but by Wednesday he was back at the Mayo emergency room after he began to bleed uncontrollably.
“It ended up being a scary situation with blood clots in my lungs,” McDonald said. “It’s fortunate they passed through my lungs and didn’t end up getting stuck in my heart.”
McDonald was given Vitamin K and a middle-of-the-night procedure was performed where a catheter was put through his jugular vein and down to his heart to relieve further blood clots. He will have that removed by October.
The return to the ER was difficult to handle for McDonald, who suffered a near-death heart arrhythmia experience 13 years ago.
“At the end of my second hospital stay, I was ready to break,” he said. “I was really tired of being in the hospital and wanted to get home.”
Due to COVID-19 restrictions at the hospital, home was where the McDonalds’ teenage children, Abbey and Ayden, were the entire time.
Ayden, a 16-year-old junior point guard being recruited by several Division I and Division II colleges, has taken inspiration from his father’s struggles.
“One thing that I’ve noticed is that no matter the situation, he always tries to stay positive and find the good in a situation,” the younger McDonald said. “He doesn’t get down about stuff and tries to keep his mindset in the right direction.
“He’s had a really long year and a tough year but he’s continued to stay positive and fight through it.”
By needing to take care of himself, Ayden has matured off the court and he’s learned many of life’s lessons through the process.
“It’s taught me to stay positive and stay happy,” he said. “Everyday stuff that affects me could always be worse, like things my dad is going through.”
For Joel McDonald, who graduated from Chisholm in 1991 as the state’s all-time leading scorer, that competitive streak has played a role in his recovery.
“There’s some truth in that,” he said. “My surgeon had said that my physical condition — since I was in such good physical shape — he felt that was what allowed me to get through this. A competitive spirit is what keeps you going and wanting to stay healthy.”
So far, so good, but the recovery process has a long way to go.
“You try to take each day as it comes,” McDonald said. “And every day has been a little better than the day before.”