Note: Throughout May, Coolibar highlights melanoma survivors to call awareness to the dangers of melanoma. This week: the terrifying, ongoing journey of Jerry Dalton.
We thought that we wouldn’t get to meet Jerry Dalton, the certified rescue diver. Or Dalton the outdoorsman, the avid fisherman, or the deceptively tough jokester who worked for the maximum-security George Beto Unit in the Texas prison system, the guy who “could always handle what was going on.”
But really, we did. We met Jerry Dalton: survivor.
And this tough jokester known as Monopoly Man (so named by prison inmates when his mustache grew back white and bushy like the character on the Parker Brothers game) is still very much alive.
In an early communication about his schedule he informed us that “I will be fishing. Or swimming, depends on my balance that day.” That turned out to be a reference to what can happen when you combine the effects of long-term melanoma treatment with the effects of standing in a small, tippy boat.
Nerve damage prevents Jerry from lifting his left arm above his head; “fortunately, I’m right handed,” he says. “It’s just not so fortunate when you fall.” He also reports that he is numb from his face all the way down into his chest. “So…just another thing. It’s a perfect place to get shot I guess.”
A Harrowing Journey
Dalton’s battle with melanoma began in September 1999, shortly after his doctor had removed a mole from his left ear. Jerry was driving to Laredo, Texas with Mary, a medical technologist who would soon be his wife (and who plays no small part in this story; she is still by his side today). “I hit my ear with my finger,” Jerry says. “And it bled and bled and it wouldn’t stop. My wife suggested I switch doctors.”
Day surgery seemed to correct the problem – “you couldn’t even tell (anything had happened) when it healed,” Jerry says – until the biopsy results returned.
“It came back melanoma,” said Dalton.
A doctor in Amarillo did not hesitate to refer Jerry to Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. There was further surgery there. This time, “they had cut from the top of my ear all the way to the bottom of my throat,” Jerry says, “and (they) removed 40 lymph nodes.”
The cancer appeared in three.
“I was scared,” Jerry says. “But I didn’t really understand it at that time.”
Then came the first of what would be 10 years of PET (positron emission tomography) scans, which create images to show the possible spread of cancer cells – “At that point it was like ‘why aren’t I glowing now?’” says Jerry – and one year of grueling interferon treatments.
He remembers places, and events. His first transient ischemic attack (TIA, or mini-stroke. A second, more severe TIA in Amarillo, and the doctors recommending he stop the treatments (“I REFUSED!” Jerry says). The day, during his first three-month PET scan, that doctors discovered an aortic aneurysm.
“I thought: oh, brother,” says Jerry. “I beat cancer, and now I’m gonna die of an aneurysm.” Open heart surgery in 2011, during which he received a mechanical heart valve “and a warranty card to boot.”
There were years of moving around and dealing with dwindling finances. Jerry went on disability in 2007; the couple lived in Clinton, Missouri and Palestine, Texas. Jerry and Mary bought several rental properties, selling all but two before the housing crunch. Mary moved to Lufkin and lived in a travel trailer for a while before they purchased their current home there (which “needs help…more than I do,” Jerry says).
This is an important part of the story: during this long period, Jerry was often stuck indoors. Sometimes, due to either the medical event or the treatment, he was unable to eat or talk. The outdoorsman was now wondering about the most basic activities.
“Who’s gonna mow the lawn?” Jerry remembers asking himself. “If I couldn’t do that, I’d have gone nuts.”
Surviving – and Living, Too
This is Jerry Dalton today: he speaks in a husky tone (one vocal cord is paralyzed). His vision is impaired from the strokes. He has a mechanical heart valve. He used to weigh 240 pounds; now it’s more like 175. He’s accident-prone; the other day a piece of 2×6 lumber “fell out of my hand,” he says. “Now I have half a black eye…even my doctors look forward to seeing new bruises.”
Jerry Dalton is also cancer-free, and has been since 2011. “The best time was when they said, ‘you don’t need any more treatments. You are free to go,’” says Jerry.
What is most amazing is that he tells this story with a lightness of spirit that lets you know you’re speaking with Jerry the melanoma survivor and Jerry the adventurous rescue diver all at once.
“The biggest challenge for me was just doing the things that I want to do,” he says. “I’m still able to drive and do things like that. But it was all so rough on my body that anything strenuous, especially climbing stairs, has gotten crazy. And the hardest part was dealing with all that.”
Talking helps. Jerry has written a book, as yet unpublished, about his experiences. He reaches out to anyone who will listen about the dangers of melanoma and ways he’s discovered to effectively deal with a diagnosis.
For him, that has been a long-term effort to strike a balance. The former highly active life in and around the water must blend into his more recent existence, which for quite a while has included being afraid to step outside.
“I was so worried at the time to go out in the sun…we had to do something,” Jerry says. “After going through all this stuff with melanoma, and me not being able to go outside, I was scared to death. One of our first things was researching (protective) clothing.”
This was several years ago now, but the clothing remains – Jerry is never without a full-featured Coolibar hat, such as the Ultra Sport Hat, and a Coolibar UPF 50+ shirt. But the fear is subsiding. Jerry credits Coolibar clothing with providing a new freedom, the ability to live and play outside again without worrying about the sun’s UV rays and a recurrence of melanoma.
A word about Mary: “There is no way I could have done all this without her,” Jerry says. In his mind he goes back in time to a car ride in 1999, and the diagnosis that immediately followed, and all that lay ahead.
“I said, “well, I don’t expect you to deal with this; I’ll just go back to my family,’” Jerry says. “And she said, ‘I don’t think so.’”
In late April, Jerry participated in the Sealy Outdoors Big Bass Splash at Sam Rayburn Lake in the couple’s newly purchased (actually it’s 37 years old, and as yet has no sun canopy) bass boat. That was his first venture out into the sun and water in many, many years.
This is Jerry Dalton, true to form: “I fished Friday am, it was so rough & full of boats that made mine look like a baby boat. I fell Thursday evening while trying to sit on the upper seat. This hurt so much, that I did it again Friday. I was out-fished this year. (But) it won’t happen again!”