Justin Kaus has officiated thousands of basketball games in the last couple of decades, but on Friday night, in the locker room a few minutes before taking the court at Fitzgerald Gym, his resting heart rate was a rapid 118 beats per minute.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been that nervous and had that much adrenaline for a (junior-varsity) game,” Kaus said, gathering with friends later Friday night to celebrate the way basketball officials often do on the weekend. “It was awesome.”
Kaus returned to the basketball court Friday for the first time since early February, having battled a form of leukemia that halted his professional and athletic career and nearly took his life.
“It was great,” he said, flexing some stiff muscles and joints. “The interaction with coaches, talking with fans, interacting with the players ... you forget how much fun and rewarding that it.”
It was more than 14 months since Kaus, 44, went to the clinic, feeling run down and with little energy or strength. He was diagnosed with a sinus infection, but two weeks passed, with stronger antibiotics, and he wasn’t feeling any better.
He scheduled a visit to another doctor, who put him through a more extensive examination. He had blood drawn, and, as he was driving home, his doctor called and told him to get to the emergency room.
His hemoglobin level was dangerously low, and Kaus was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Rochester.
“I went from thinking I had a sinus infection to having blood cancer in about 6 hours,” Kaus said.
Thus began the yearlong process of trying to survive a diagnosis of primary myelofibrosis, a treatable form of leukemia. He continued his normal routine of work and officiating basketball games for a couple of months, trying not to get too worn down.
By February, after finding a couple of perfect donors for a bone-marrow transplant, the treatment became more rigorous — and dangerous.
There was a round of chemotherapy in mid-February, followed by a stem cell transplant on Feb. 28. He was told to expect at least 100 days in the hospital, but that time more than doubled when he had to have his spleen removed in March. He developed an infection that required the removal of most of his colon, forcing a lifesaving surgery on May 25.
“The doctor told me that if I didn’t have my colon removed, it would likely burst,” Kaus said. “At that point, there would have been nothing more they could do for me.”
There were a few weeks during the summer that he can’t remember. At one point, he shut off his cell phone after staring at it one day, not sure what he was supposed to do with it. His friends stayed in touch through an online diary, written by his girlfriend, Delight Simpson.
In May, hundreds of Kaus’ friends gathered for a fundraiser, collecting thousands of dollars to help him with his monthly bills and extra expenses and exchanging hope for Kaus.
“I can’t thank people enough,” he said, getting momentarily choked up with emotion. “The support I’ve received from my family, my work family, my basketball family has been unbelievable.”
Kaus said that since that surgery, his recovery has been rapid and remarkable. It’s about what he had originally been told had he not had any complications. He’s had more than 100 blood transfusions, and ironically, he now goes in a couple of times each month to have some blood removed.
“After what I’ve been through, it’s hard to watch them just throw that blood away,” he said.
He weighed 153 pounds when the treatments began but slipped to 98 pounds. He’s worked hard to get his weight back to near normal, and he’s done of lot of rehab work to regain strength. He was unable to lift 2 pounds at his most dire times. He still sees a doctor a couple of times each month, but those visits have become less frequent.
Until recently, he had to rely on Simpson, his daughter, Taylor, and his mom, Sally, to get around, but now he’s driving again.
When he started rehab, he couldn’t lift 10 pounds on the single-leg press, but he’s now up to 125. He’s always been active, participating in sports, and his conditioning has slowly returned.
“It felt so good to see him there,” said Ben Kaus, Justin’s cousin and officiating partner on Friday. “There was such a shock factor (a year ago) when we found out about his condition, and it took a while to sink in. For a while, we didn’t know if Justin was going to be around much longer.
“But at one of the visits, when it didn’t look very good, he told us that he was going to make it. His positive attitude is what made the difference. Justin has always been like a big brother to me, and it’s great to have him back.”
On Feb. 28, which will be one year from the stem-cell transplant, Kaus will have a checkup to see if the cancer is gone or he needs more treatment. He’ll also know shortly after that if he needs to continue with colostomy and ileostomy bags or he can have surgery to reattach his colon to the digestive tract.
Until then, he’s going to continue to increase his work hours and officiate basketball as much as his body can tolerate. He wanted to get that first assignment out of the way to see how he felt, then he can plan the next couple of months. Being on the court is as much of a mental triumph as a physical milestone.
“In August, I had pretty much written off this season,” he said. “In early December, it was my 40th physical therapy session in Mankato, my physical therapist suggested that I talk with some coach and go to a scrimmage to simulate basketball movements.
“It’s the coolest thing to be back on the court,” he said. “I’ve gotten so many messages and words of encouragement and support from the start to this point. This was another step in getting back to normal, and it’s something I’ve worked hard for.
“It’s never been about me, but the camaraderie being around other officials and telling stories and talking about the games has been very therapeutic. We don’t have to (officiate basketball games). We do it because we still enjoy the games and we want to give something back. I hope the coaches, the players, the fans appreciate what we do, but in the end, all that matters is we’re spending time in the gym, around a game that we love.”
Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.