Basketball and golf coach, former health teacher and father, Tim O’Brien has had his share of life-defining challenges. In 2002, he endured an aorta aneurysm where he had six inches of his descending aorta replaced (a surgery that came with a 90% mortality rate). Only a few years later, he faced his next death-defying feat: a fight through cancer.
O’Brien had planned to retire at the end of the 2017-18 school year after 42 years of teaching before he was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) on April 10, 2018.
“I was feeling run down for the past 3-4 months prior so during spring break of last year, I had a physical that included a blood test,” O’Brien said. “On April 1, I put in word to the district about my retirement. A bit more than a week later, I was diagnosed with AML. That’s not supposed to work like that.”
Within 24 hours of diagnosis, O’Brien was admitted to Hoag Hospital and quickly began chemotherapy.
“My initial thoughts were ‘this must be a mistake, this is crazy,’” O’Brien said. “I’m kind of in denial as cancer was never on our family radar. I got too much going on right now to be dealing with cancer. Later that same day, as I regrouped with some quiet time alone in my backyard, I changed my approach and instead of saying ‘why me,’ it was now ‘why not me.’ Leaning on my faith, I was determined to beat this.”
In-hospital recovery lasted 110 days and consisted of rounds of chemotherapy, dietary restrictions, limited activity and a long list of medications.
“Recovery was long and endless,” O’Brien said. “I am an active guy so this made the stay even tougher. I went in weighing 194 and left weighing 152. I underwent a total of three rounds of chemotherapy, each round lasting about 10 days, and each round seemingly more intense than the one prior as my body weakened with each session. Chemotherapy definitely took its toll on me physically over time.”
Towards the end of his stay at the hospital, O’Brien underwent a bone marrow transplant on July 13. His donor, a 29-year-old international male, will have the option to meet O’Brien after a year if both sides agree.
“After doing the transplant, it usually takes another six months to a year if all goes well for the transplant to safely take hold,” O’Brien said. “Things can still go ‘sideways’ in a hurry if I am not careful.”
After months of treatment, O’Brien was declared cancer-free and has been since July 30.
“Cancer picked the wrong guy,” O’Brien said. “But I cannot let up one bit. I hear so many stories of people having relapsed for one reason or other. I refuse to be in a hurry or compromise anything at this point. I actually started preparing for this unexpected cancer unknowingly years ago. The fact that I was fit upon diagnosis gave me the fighting chance I needed to beat this. Had I waited until I was diagnosed with AML and then started a fitness and nutrition plan, I am not so sure the outcome would be in my favor.”
O’Brien was cleared to return for this school year, but under restricted activity. Despite his condition and retirement from teaching, he continues to coach basketball, showing up to practices and putting his heart into the court and minds of Northwood’s athletes.
“A word of wisdom: if you do happen to hear of anyone diagnosed with any form of cancer, just say, ‘I am sorry,’ and/or ‘Stay strong.,’” O’Brien said. “I didn’t know how profound those two statements were until I actually went through this experience. You must stay strong not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. No matter how discouraged you get, you must grind through the entire process.”
His return has made an impact on the core of the team. Connecting lessons made on the court to lessons in life, O’Brien encourages each player to push themself, never giving up no matter what.
“Everyday, we just see a man who is fighting for his life, still giving out 200 percent of his energy to coach us basketball,” junior and varsity basketball player Can Öz said. “His love for basketball is immeasurable and this really motivates us, as a team, to strive for the best everyday not only on the court, but also off the court. Without Coach O’Brien’s support, our basketball team would not be as strong as it is right now. His role on our team really means the world to us!”