In the bewildering moments after Tess Pfohl was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening cancer, Mayo Clinic's Dr. Michael Yaszemski offered perhaps the only balm possible.
He connected the 25-year-old Cannon Falls native with one of his former patients, Elizabeth Gauthier, in hopes of expanding a fraternity of survivors who have leaned upon each other for strength and advice.
The renowned surgeon said he's performed just 160 intricate spinal procedures in the last 18 years, which typically results in patients losing a limb or becoming unable to walk. While many have died — the exact number was not made available — 28-year-old Gauthier is a survivor of six years who is thriving in her unofficial role as an ambassador. The Chicago woman had been mentored herself by Janis Olson, a Canadian woman who made headlines across the globe in 2007 when Yaszemski's Mayo Clinic team essentially cut Olson in half and put her back together in a groundbreaking surgery.
Gauthier said she spoke with Pfohl and her family as they sat in Yaszemski's office, offering insight on the path ahead and answering questions. The two have stayed in touch over the past month through email and Facebook, and Gauthier hopes to visit Minnesota after Pfohl's summer surgery to show her what's still possible.
The procedure will sever her spinal cord so that surgeons can remove a deadly tumor now wrapped around it. Yaszemski has informed Pfohl that the surgery will make her paraplegic, confining her to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.
Facing a daunting future like that, Gauthier has been trying to show Pfohl that she'll still be able to do things. Despite losing a leg in Yaszemski's life-saving surgery in 2008, Gauthier uses a wheelchair to compete in triathlons and says she's working toward a masters degree in disabilities and human development.
"It's just kind of creating a network and talking to people, but it's tough to tell people how horrific it can be and then try to be reassuring as well," Gauthier said.
"I'm learning a lot about the human disability experience. You're not alone. There's people that are there for you. It's a shared experience, but it's becoming a force. Together we can do this."
Bill Pfohl, Tess' father, has been highly complimentary of Yaszemski. In addition to connecting them with Gauthier, he highlighted one particular night when the surgeon stayed until 10 p.m. looking at pictures of his daughter.
"That's just being a human being," Yaszemski said, deflecting such praise. "It's just caring about what you've got and willing to be around when you're needed.
"(Tess) is a remarkably mature young woman who is making the most difficult decision in an incredibly important and objective manner. For all of us in the care team, it's a privilege to to take care of her."
However, the doctor dreams of a day when such procedures may no longer be necessary.
A Mayo Clinic research team, which includes Yaszemski, is currently attempting to develop a remedy that can kill such tumors, reducing the need for debilitating surgery. Lab tests have been successful, but researchers have yet to develop a formula that won't also kill the patient, Yaszemski said.
Long-term, Yaszemski hopes to develop "smart particles, much like a Trojan horse" that will search out and destroy tumors after simply being injected through an IV.
While the medical possibilities clearly energized the doctor, those solutions remain tantalizingly out of reach for Pfohl. Funding issues for the National Institutes of Health — its research budget fell by more than $1 billion in 2014 and NIH's purchasing power is down 25% since 2004 due to inflation, according to a recent USA Today story — could also impact future patients.
"It's not going to happen this year or next year," Yaszemski said. "This is a marathon, not a sprint, but we'll keep working on it."