The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 12, 2014

For optimistic Zierdt, the fight is on

GMG president dealing with cancer diagnosis

By Robb Murray

---- — He remembers seeing the light.

Not figuratively, like when you suddenly come to an understanding about something. Literally, as in he was actually seeing “the light,” he said.

After days of getting progressively sicker — including a day when his fever spiked higher than 104 — Jonathan Zierdt, a man whose energy and positivity have made him a recognizable figure in the Mankato community, lost consciousness.

In that moment, he said, he had an experience similar to ones others have described when they're near death.

“I saw a light. A beautiful, bright light,” Zierdt said, “and I remember thinking, 'That's heaven. I get to go there … But not today. I have things left to do.'”

When he returned, he did so with a sense of patience, calm and peace he said hadn't been in his life until then.

Which is good. Because he's probably going to need it.

Zierdt, president and CEO of Greater Mankato Growth (Mankato's Chamber of Commerce and economic development organization), said his period of unconsciousness was caused by an infection triggered during a biopsy. His doctor had recently found a lump on his prostate, and the biopsy was being done to determine whether or not it was cancerous.

In the last few months, Zierdt's life has been transformed. After his prostate cancer diagnosis, he's learned a lot about himself, about his relationships with his family, about how people in this community feel about him, and even more about just how firmly cancer's grip is on his life – there was more bad news to come.

But instead of folding up and moping, Zierdt is embracing the opportunity he has to live another chapter of his life to the fullest and become an example to men. His message? Don't be such a man. Take care of your health and listen to your doctor before it's too late.

The next big phase of Zierdt's life begins Monday, when he'll undergo the first of at least two surgeries at a Mayo Clinic hospital in Rochester. He's optimistic. Whatever it takes, he said, whether it's chemotherapy, radiation or whatever. He's going to fight.

Early signs

Over the past few years, results from his prostate-specific antigen tests have shown slightly elevated numbers. He also has a family history that leaves him at a higher risk of having prostate cancer. The final red flag came when a prostate exam revealed a lump on his prostate.

Because of all those factors, his doctors suggested they look a little further into what's happening with his prostate.

His biopsy procedure was done Nov. 1. Four days later his doctor delivered the news: prostate cancer.

In the prostate cancer world, severity is measured on something called the Gleason Grading System. People with prostate cancer are evaluated and given a score of 0 through 10 with 10 being the worst. Zierdt's cancer was given a Gleason score of 8, which means it is highly aggressive and requires equally aggressive treatment.

Four days after that diagnosis, Zierdt began feeling ill. As it turns out, prostate biopsy procedures are notorious for triggering infections, and that's exactly what happened to him. It started in his prostate and moved on to his urinary tract and kidney before finally getting into his bloodstream.

On Nov. 10 he and his wife, Ginger, went into the emergency department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato where he was given antibiotics for his infection. His conditioned worsened. The next day he went to his urologist, thinking that would be the best place to figure out what was going on with him.

The urologist, upon seeing Zierdt, could tell this was a medically dangerous situation and sent him back to the emergency department. Doctors there were curious about the odd combination of Zierdt's gravely ill condition combined with the pain he was experiencing in his side. So they ordered a CT scan, which revealed the next phase of Zierdt's health odyssey: kidney cancer. (His surgery Monday, in fact, will be to remove a mass on his left kidney — which initially was labeled a renal cell carcinoma, but only tests on the mass after removal will be able to tell for sure. Doctors will attempt to keep as much of the kidney intact as possible. If necessary, it will be removed.)

It was as this point that Zierdt's physical condition had deteriorated the most. He was septic (which, left untreated, can be fatal) and doctors had to inject him with a saline concoction called “ice” to lower his body temperature. He was incoherent. Luckily, he was in the hospital when he lost consciousness and drifted off.

He hesitates to call it a near-death experience. But Zierdt is clear about what he saw. He describes seeing a white light, but it was off in the distance. And when he regained consciousness, he said, medical staff had stabilized him. His fever would remain for another 48 hours, but he felt better. And peaceful.

“It's hard to explain, but it was in those seconds that I saw that light that I was granted the patience,” he said. “I just felt calm.”

Hard story to tell

Up until this point, neither he nor Ginger had said anything to their families about Jonathan's cancer. But the time had come. And this phase of their journey would open up a part of their lives they couldn't have predicted.

Zierdt's father was diagnosed with prostate cancer seven years ago. Zierdt remembered his reaction as one of, OK, so let's have the surgery and take the medicine and cure it and move on.

“Not until I had my own health scare did I realize that I could have handled things so much differently,” he said.

It was actually Ginger who made the call to Zierdt's parents. At this point, they knew nothing of the prostate cancer, the kidney cancer, the dangerous fever, the septic shock, the hospitalization.

“I called his dad and said, 'I need to tell you a story,'” Ginger said. “And as I started telling it, I could tell he just knew.”

The elder Zierdt's response?

“Well … that's something we can get through,” he said.

He then asked if they'd told Ginger's mother, a task the entire family knew wasn't to be done carelessly. Ginger's mother had recently lost her husband to cancer. Zierdt's parents immediately offered to drive to Spring Valley to break the news to her. And that's what they did.

The families are close. Jonathan and Ginger met when they were 5 – Jonathan claims to have kissed her in kindergarten, a claim Ginger can't corroborate. They became “sweethearts,” as Jonathan said, in high school and never parted.

Parents from both sides wanted to come right away.

“We said 'No,'” Zierdt said. “I wanted them to see me healthy, not in a hospital gown.”

When the families did come, Jonathan realized he needed to have a talk with his father.

After living through the previous week, he said he had a much better understanding of the seriousness involved. And he was slightly ashamed he'd failed to show proper emotion when his father needed him.

“I told him how sorry I was at how I did not respond in a way that was becoming of a son,” Zierdt said. “He just smiled, shook his head and said, 'No, it's fine.' He knew there wasn't any ill intent on my part. It was just me being me. And then he moved on.”

Strong bond

The Zierdts have been lucky. For nearly all their marriage, they'd never really experienced loss. The first came last fall when Ginger, an only child, lost her father. The events of the past four months have opened their eyes, they said. They're feeling a desire to pay attention more to the life going on around them.

And while it may seem strange, Zierdt said he's not dreading the hand life has dealt him.

“What a gift I've been given,” he said.

Because of what's happening to him, the community has embraced him. Well wishers are filling the guestbook on his Caring Bridge site.

Richard and Mary Davenport wrote, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you and we're wishing you all the best. Your attitude and spirit are certain to transcend the challenges ahead.”

David and Carole Lundquist wrote, “Carole and I wish both of you the best in 2014. We continue to be inspired with both of you as you continue this journey with Jonathan. We have you in our thoughts and prayers.”

Barb Embacher wrote, “I'm sending you my prayers every day. I know that you are strong and God is stronger. Enjoy the peace of the Christmas season and many more sunsets.”

“This is one of the times in my life that I've felt the most blessed,” Zierdt said. “I've gotten the chance to see how people really feel about me.”

Take action

Zierdt knows he's a public figure in this community. As the president and CEO of GMG, he's one of the community's biggest boosters. He's also in the news a lot.

As a public figure, Zierdt said he's in a unique position to try to help other men. He's hoping his experience can be a wake-up call for other men who may not be as vigilant when it comes to their health.

Zierdt is 47, in great physical shape and you won't find many people with more energy or a more positive attitude. If cancer can happen to him, he said, it can happen to anyone. In the coming weeks, The Free Press will follow Zierdt's progress.

His surgery Monday will go after the racquetball-size growth on his kidney, a potentially dangerous mass to work around because of its unique packaging. (Kidney cancers such as this come surrounded by a sack of fluid that, if punctured, can release cancerous cells to the bloodstream.)

After that, he'll have his second surgery planned, this time for the lump on his prostate.

If all goes well, it's possible that two surgeries would be the end of it. But part of the problem with Zierdt's condition is the number of unknowns. They don't know how deadly the kidney cancer is. He also has enlarged lymph nodes, so those will need to be examined. Finally, he's got a few nodules on his lungs. On their own, they are of little concern. But because he also has kidney cancer, the concern is elevated. The kidneys, it turns out, favor the lungs when they decide to spread. Which would not be good.

So stay tuned.