When Bob Bryant mentioned the idea of Hawaiian day to Jan Fritz, director of cancer services at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center, he thought one or two of the nurses might put on a Hawaiian shirt.
Instead, when he arrived for treatment on April 11, Bryant was greeted with leis and shell necklaces, Hawaiian decorations in his treatment area, a cake and a hula dancer.
“This was way over the top from what I could have ever imagined,” said Bryant. “Just because we’re sick doesn’t mean we can’t all be upbeat and celebrate things.”
And celebrate they did, especially since Bryant and his wife, Connie Kassel, were married just the day before.
A love story unfolds
Bryant and Kassel met on the internet some “14-ish years” ago.
“I liked how active he is in life,” said Kassel. “Riding horses and ATVs, working on the ranch, all the active stuff you can do around here.”
“She has a kind heart and is so generous,” said Bryant. “And she’s pretty.”
Their first date was over Mexican food at lunchtime.
“I guess you could say the rest is history,” said Kassel, a distinct twinkle in her eye.
An adventurous soul
“From the time I was 16, I knew I wasn’t supposed to live in the city,” said Bryant. “I literally hitchhiked my way into Steamboat Springs on July 7, 1974 from Columbus, Ohio.”
Bryant, 66, is a retired heavy diesel mechanic. He learned the skills as he couldn’t afford to have others work on his machinery, and he enjoyed it, particularly working on International trucks.
He considers himself “highly adventurous,” with some of his best adventures including a 50-mile pack trip from Dumont Lake to the Slavonia trailhead outside of Steamboat Springs, and a drive to Alaska with ATVs in tow on a hunt for moose, black bear and wolf.
“That hunt didn’t pan out like I’d hoped,” said Bryant. “I think we see more wildlife in Steamboat Springs than you do in Alaska.”
A different type of adventure
Early in 2018, Bryant saw his primary care physician for what Bryant called the “welcome to Medicare” physical.
“During that appointment, I told him I hadn’t seen a picture of my lungs in a decade,” said Bryant. “He said, ‘Let’s get a picture.’”
That picture led to Bryant being diagnosed with stage 3 non-small cell lung cancer.
“I’m not a smoker, but I knew there were things in my past that could have been contributing factors,” said Bryant.
As part of an adventure tour in Mexico in 1988, Bryant went in a bat cave. There’s a possibility he may have contracted histoplasmosis, an infection caused by breathing in fungal spores often found in bird and bat droppings.
A year after that, Bryant worked in an underground coal mine for 12 years.
“We’ll never know for sure, but it does make you wonder if there’s any connection,” he said.
It took about a month for Bryant to get the necessary ducks in a row for his treatment. In June 2018, under the care of Dr. Allen Cohn, he began chemotherapy at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center and radiation in Edwards, Colo.
“I had chemo on Mondays in Steamboat Springs, then Connie would take me home and I’d ride my motorcycle down to Edwards for radiation during the middle of the week, then I’d ride the bike back home on Fridays,” said Bryant. “I was strong and healthy enough to do that for six weeks, the entire duration of that course of treatment. It meant a lot to be able to do that, to be able to continue some of the fun things in my life.”
Kassel played an integral role in Bryant’s care.
“She is a tremendous support system for him,” said Shannon Fonger, a nurse practitioner at UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center. “It can be difficult during appointments for a patient to take in all the information, but Connie did a wonderful job learning and understanding the various aspects of Bob’s care.”
At the end of July 2018, Bryant’s chemotherapy and radiation treatments finished within a day of each other. He took a three week break, then began 12 sessions of immunotherapy over the course of 24 weeks.
At the end of that treatment, unfortunately, a PET scan showed that not only had the treatment not worked, it had made things worse.
“The cancer mutated and metastasized, but it’s stayed in my lungs so far,” he said. “If you can’t breathe, you can’t do anything else.”
Bryant went back to chemotherapy treatments every three weeks.
Celebrating the person
It was during one of those treatments where the idea of Hawaiian day came about.
“As usual, Jan and her team took it to the next level,” said Kassel. “They are our heroes. They are great. They’re always upbeat.”
Initially it was a simple Hawaiian day. Then Fritz learned that Bryant and Kassel were set to wed the day before his next treatment.
“That took our plans up a notch – we ordered a cake and planned lunch and decorations. Someone even knew of a woman Steamboat Springs who performed hula dances. She was on board, too,” said Fritz.
“We did everything a little backwards with the wedding,” joked Kassel. “Honeymoon planning, marriage certificate, rings, then the ceremony. But it worked for us.”
Bryant had been planning an Alaskan cruise with Kassel when they began talking about getting married.
“I may have had the thought of it being a honeymoon cruise,” said Bryant.
With the trip set (and the honeymoon aspect still a secret), Bryant and Kassel talked over a weekend about getting married. The next Tuesday, March 19, they went to the Routt County Courthouse for their marriage certificate.
On April 10, 2019, they were married at Steamboat Christian Center.
The Hawaiian celebration the next day during Bryant’s treatment was icing on the cake.
“The relationships we’re able to build with our patients are so special,” said Fritz. “Yes, we care for Bob the patient, but today, we cared for Bob the person. Today wasn’t about cancer. Today was about celebrating the life Bob and Connie have together.”
‘A godsend in my backyard’
Bryant continues to live with lung cancer, but has been responding positively to recent treatments.
“If we had to go to Denver for Bob’s treatment, it would have been really stressful,” said Kassel. “We can’t say enough about the care we’ve both received.”
“Honestly, it’s been a godsend being able to have treatment essentially in my backyard,” Bryant said of the cancer center in Steamboat. “If I had to go further away from home for my care, it would have made things exponentially worse; this has made it exponentially better.”