The announcement that Indianapolis Colts coach Chuck Pagano is fighting leukemia likely didn’t go unnoticed by Dave Dunkle.
The 40-year-old physician with practices in Franklin and Greenwood has a built-in antenna for this sort of thing. That’s because Dunkle, 21 years ago, was diagnosed with a disease akin to the one afflicting Pagano.
Dunkle is a survivor of AML (acute myeloid leukemia), a malignant disorder of the bone marrow. Pagano, 52, has begun treatments for APL (acute promyelocytic leukemia), which Dunkle describes as a subtype of AML.
“My first thought was that I just felt horrible for him. You feel for him, and you feel for his family,” Dunkle said. “I would tell him to keep a great attitude and not to worry about the little things. Put everything into focusing on your health right now.”
Among the first things one notices about Dunkle, a former Franklin College men’s basketball player, are his height (he’s a shade under 6-foot-5) and an unendingly optimistic personality.
In retrospect, Dunkle feels between 80 and 90 percent of his eventual recovery can be attributed to the upbeat attitude he kept from the time he was diagnosed (spring 1991) to the time his leukemia was in full remission (September 1996).
This despite one doctor actually having the temerity to tell Dunkle he had a 10 percent chance of seeing his 21st birthday.
It’s a story with a happy ending, but the early 1990s were daunting, uncertain times around Kerry Prather’s program because of Dunkle’s illness. The longtime Franklin College men’s basketball coach to this day remains powerless against his own tears when flashing back to that era.
“It was just ... a really hard time,” Prather said, stopping for a moment to collect himself. “He’s just a very special person.”
No ‘spring’ in his step
The first sign something was amiss came during a spring break trip to Daytona Beach with friends following the 1990-91 basketball season. While those around him celebrated the joys affiliated with youth and the end of winter, Dunkle was constantly fatigued and, worse, began vomiting blood.
He remembers wading into the Atlantic Ocean and being unable to stand up against a strong current. He was immediately examined upon his return to Indiana, not at all prepared for the diagnosis he would hear.
“Dr. Doug Bullington, who is now my (practice) partner, is the one who broke it to me that I had leukemia,” Dunkle said. “I was in shock. You’re 19 years old. I went to the IU Medical Center that night and started chemotherapy treatments.
“It was kind of a whirlwind.”
For everyone involved.
“Dave’s folks lived in Wisconsin. He and I had this running joke about him having (mononucleosis),” Prather said. “When I talked to him on the phone, I asked Dave if it was mono, and he said, ‘I wish.’ We talked about survival statistics and how many of those people are big, strong 19-year-olds.
“Dave is a relentlessly positive person, and I think that’s how he approached it.”
Asked if he ever once thought he couldn’t beat leukemia, Dunkle, his stare intense, said, “Never.”
“Never. But there’s a lot to be said for the naivete of youth,” he added. “I had two jobs, going to class and playing basketball. Then beating leukemia became my first job. You put all your effort into it.”
Just as Dunkle anticipated, there were some appallingly unsettling moments created by the chemotherapy and other treatments designed to rid him of the leukemia.
“Dave had some horrendous periods with his chemotherapy. At one point he had thrown up so much that his face swelled up. I could barely see his eyes,” Prather said. “We talked on the phone every night, and there were nights when I thought, ‘If this boy makes it through the night, it’s a win.’”
A 215-pound backup post player for the Grizzlies as a freshman, Dunkle’s weight dropped as low as 180 pounds. Chemo rid him of most of his hair, a side effect that forced Dunkle to rotate four or five of his favorite baseball caps. His Colts, Franklin College and Philadelphia Eagles hats were among the preferred selections.
Dunkle no longer has the hats, but he retained the memories.
Doing just fine
Dunkle began the 1991-92 school year a couple of weeks late after his release from the hospital and caught up academically. Through those months and the ones that followed, he remembered what Prather continually preached to him and his teammates about not getting too high with the highs or too low with the lows.
So Dunkle didn’t.
Having worked himself back into basketball shape, he started every game at center for Franklin College as a sophomore on what was a senior-laden squad. The Grizzlies climbed as high as No. 3 in the NAIA Division II poll and advanced all the way to the Elite Eight of the national tournament.
By the time his college basketball career was over, Dunkle had been a two-time all-conference selection and an Academic All-American. He averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds a game his junior season and currently sits 27th on the program’s career scoring list with 1,041 points.
Sixteen years have gone by since Dunkle was officially declared leukemia-free. He and his wife, Amy, have two young children, and Dunkle is now 10 years into a profession he truly loves.
Still a fit 225 pounds — the same weight as when he graduated from Franklin College in 1994 — Dunkle continues to take part in alumni basketball games. Nearly every time he strokes a 3-pointer, he’ll look over to Prather, the facial expression clearly stating, “Look at this range.”
The coach smiles. The scouting report on Dunkle is that he’s developed a nice perimeter shot in the years since leaving Franklin. To that point, his comfort zone extended to about 12 feet.
Nevertheless, the fact Dunkle is running the floor, joking with former teammates and setting a moving screen here and there is something to behold for Prather.
But Dunkle knew. Deep down, even at 19, he just ... knew.
“When he finished his chemo the doctors strongly suggested a bone marrow transplant. Dave declined,” Prather said. “Dave is so smart that he looked at that procedure and just had a sense he was going to be OK.”
He was right.
“It never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t make it. It was all about how fast can I get back to playing ball and back to living my normal life,” Dunkle said. “I’m going to enjoy life, but I decided going through what I went through is also going to make me a better physician.
“I try to explain things in a way the patient will understand.”
Never has 10 percent looked or sounded so good.