Steve’s Story

Health Woes Won’t Deter Teacher

by Steve Law, The Statesman Journal
“Reprinted with pemission of the Statesman Journal.”

Lori Cain/Statesman Journal

In October 2003, the award-winning educator had surgery to remove a tumor from his brain. David Beranek wasn’t about to let a potentially fatal brain tumor get in the way of his teaching.

In May, after three difficult years with a stream of puzzling ailments, the McKay High School Spanish teacher finally saw an endocrinologist who figured out what was wrong. His 70-pound weight gain, the “buffalo” hump on his neck and other bizarre maladies were classic symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome. “I was told to stop working in May,” said Beranek, 43, “but I took it like ‘You should eat your broccoli.” There were classes to teach. Top students were preparing for Advanced Placement Spanish tests. “I said, ‘David, you’ve got sick leave. Stay home,” pleaded his wife, Kim. But he wouldn’t listen.

Beranek resolved to finish the school year while undergoing more tests on his battered body. “He tried to stay on as long as he could and didn’t want to let on what was going on,” said Patti Togioka, McKay vice principal. When former student Efrain Arredondo visited him at McKay, he was dismayed to see Beranek’s condition. “It was hard for him to actually walk. Just getting to the office was a struggle for him,” Arredondo said.

Beranek, who had earned a Crystal Apple teaching award from Salem-Keizer schools, plus foreign language teacher of the year from state and regional education groups, made it through the end of school in June. His doctor was shocked. “He told me on Friday the 13th of June that I needed to stop working, and we only had a few weeks to get this tumor out of my body,” Beranek said.

For the next four months, Beranek and his wife feared that he only had a few weeks to live.” Almost every time we ended a doctor’s visit, the doctor said, ‘I’m sorry,’ as we walked out the door,” Beranek said. Doctors had a tough time trying to figure out what was wrong and then trying to locate the tumor. Early on, his doctor asked him to shed the extra pounds that he was adding. “I would starve myself and run 10 miles a day and still gain weight,” he said. He went from under 170 pounds to 235. He started falling asleep in the middle of conversations. He had chest pains, bone and muscle pain, spasms, shortness of breath, a burning sensation behind his eyes and that mysterious hump on his neck. “I used to be five foot ten and a half,” he said, “Now I’m five foot eight.” At one time or another, he took 35 prescription medicines for his ailments.

The day after doctors confirmed he had Cushing’s Syndrome, Beranek underwent chest surgery on June 14. A cyst was removed but that didn’t turn out to be the culprit. Then he underwent 17 different tests at Oregon Health & Science University. Finally in September, an imaging test showed a tiny shadow over his pituitary gland. It was a dime-sized brain tumor wrecking havoc on his body. That meant he had Cushing’s Disease. “It is a fatal disease if left untreated,” said Dr. David Cook, chief of endocrinology and professor of medicine at OHSU. The body produces too much cortisone, and that weakens the body’s ability to fend off infections. “They’re immuno-compromised, just like an AIDS patient,” Cook said.

On Oct. 6, an OHSU surgeon performed brain surgery and removed the tumor. Within six weeks, Beranek lost all 70 pounds he had gained. Beranek still is weak and tires easily. It’s a struggle to walk down the street from his Keizer home to the Taco Bell on the corner. He’s on pain-killers and his bones are extremely fragile. “I could break a bone if I bend over wrong,” he said. Yet he desperately wants to return to his job. Beranek speaks several languages and built a reputation at McKay for encouraging native Spanish speakers to pursue further studies in Spanish. It’s like native English speakers majoring in English. One of his students scored tops in the nation on the National Spanish Exam last year, Togioka said. “To give you an idea of the impression he had on me, I’m actually going to be a Spanish teacher within about six months,” Arredondo said. “I want to be at McKay and teach Spanish there in the same way he did.” If all goes well, Beranek hopes to be back there too, as soon as September.

Steve Law can be reached at (503) 399-6615 or at slaw@statesmanjournal.com

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