posted on June 01, 2011 in people
@story MARLA CANTRELL
@images MARCUS COKER
Butch Whitlow never wasted a minute. “I’ve run a hundred miles an hour with my hair on fire ever since I can remember. I raced boats, ran this business,” he says, sitting behind his desk at Whit’s Marine in Fort Smith. “I’m an eighth-degree black belt in GoJu. I’ve done that for thirty years. Had my own school for twenty-five.”
He influenced hundreds of students in Alma, who looked to him for guidance, physical discipline, and a philosophy that would serve them when times got rough. “You can’t run a karate school for money,” But says, “because there’s no real money in it. It has to come from your heart. In all the time I had the school, I probably spent $25,000 out of my own pocket. Maybe more. But we never turned a kid down. It didn’t matter if their parents could afford it. There were kids we needed to touch, that we needed to reach out to. That’s the blessing in it.”
Yet he still has regrets. Because what he believes now is different than what he believed then. “I used to say, I am confident, not conceited. I’d go to the mall, walk down into the parking garage and think, I could take on anybody. I could whip the world. I thought that was confidence. I was wrong. I thought I was in control. Well, I wasn’t.”
It took a series of setbacks before Butch changed his mind. The first came in August, 2002, when he went to the doctor, fearing he had kidney stones.
The test results confirmed a much bigger problem. “At first they thought I had muscle neuropathy. They hit me with heavy steroids. I went from 225 to a 300 pound blob. I kept getting worse. We were just sitting there watching my body die. That went on for five years.”
Butch was admitted to the Mayo Clinic twice. “My last trip to Mayo was in February, 2008. They finally found a protein in my blood that wasn’t supposed to be there. An M-protein. All they could tell me then was that I would develop some form of cancer at some point.”
By June, the dire prediction had come true. Butch had a form of cancer called amyloidosis. He was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which explained the constant pain he’d been in. “My strength was just gone. My muscle tone was shot. I’d blown my back out and had had to have surgery.”
Soon after learning the news, his doctors ordered a bone marrow biopsy. “God just intervened. We found out the number one place to treat this disease was UAMS in Little Rock. ..The M-protein attacks the organs, and the best we can tell it was attacking my nervous system and my skin.” Butch rolls up the leg of his trousers and shows his calf, covered with brown spots. “It made my legs hyper-sensitive,” he says. “I have neuropathy on my feet. I can’t feel them but I still feel enough pressure to walk on them. It feels like a stone bruise, sometimes like needles.” The phone rings at his desk, but he doesn’t pick it up. “Ask me what I miss most today and I’d tell you it’s running. I wish I could, even if it was just one more time.”
But at that time running was the least of his worries. “I read up on amyloidosis. Best I could tell, in a full-blown case the life expectancy was twelve to eighteen months. It likes to attack the kidneys or the heart and shut them down. My heart was slightly enlarged, and they felt like that’s where it was hitting me.”
What seemed like a reprieve came shortly after. “I thought he [one of his doctors] told me I was cancer free. I came home and we all celebrated. I was telling people prayer worked. On my next visit I learned I was multi-myeloma free but I still had amyloidosis.”
The news was hard to take. “Yeah, it hurt,” Butch says, “but you know what? Through this whole deal, God gave me a peace that was unbelievable.” He smiles, runs his fingers through his thick shock of hair. “My biggest fear was losing my hair.”
So the treatment began. For a week, through a process much like dialysis, his own stem cells were harvested. He received a strong dose of chemo. The next day he was given the stem cell injection. “At one point,” Butch says, “my white blood count went down to .03.
“The next week wasn’t too bad, but the following week, well, I’ve never been so sick in my life. If it hadn’t been for my wife Cindy, I don’t think I could have made it. She pushed me to eat, kept me going.”
His trouble wasn’t over yet. “I had to go through another round, in March of 2009,” Butch says. “And yeah, I dreaded it. That time I went into respiratory failure. I was on a ventilator for nine days. For the first five, they weren’t sure I’d make it.
“I’d taken big doses of steroids. I’d been in that bed for a long time. My blood count was low and I was battling infections. My muscles deteriorated; I couldn’t walk. When I woke up, I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t even slide my legs together.”
His hospital stay stretched into July. “I knew there had to be a reason for all of this.” But there was frustration. “I’d gone from this big guy who could take care of everything to someone who couldn’t take care of myself. My wife would go to the truck to get something and I’d think, I can’t even make sure she’s okay. If my kids had a problem, I couldn’t take care of it. That’s what hurt.”
Butch’s son, Micah, was fourteen at that time. His daughter, Alex, was twenty, and away at school. Butch grips the edge of his desk. “Both my kids had to grow up. Micah, especially, had to grow up. Cindy stayed with me. Every day. My parents watched him, but I wasn’t there. Micah missed six years of my life; I missed six years with him. He was ten when I first got sick.”
And there is the conundrum for Butch, who worked so hard for so many years to help other people’s kids. He made a difference in so many lives, but fears he fell short with his own son.
Still, the light was beginning to shine again. “I had no [cancer] markers. I was talking to my doctor, and bragging on them for what they’d done for me. She looked at me and said, ‘You know you’re not the norm, don’t you? You have to look at yourself as a double miracle. You’ve beat the cancer, and you’ve beat the other problems.’”
Butch, who once turned heads as he walked through crowds, whose body had been honed from years of breaking boards and tossing students onto padded mats, is not the same person now. “I look back and I was cocky. I described it as confident, but I think I was also telling God I could handle it all. I found out in a hurry, I needed His help. A lot. I look back and I would have done it differently. I think my family suffered a little, because I lived and breathed karate for a while. I led, but I didn’t allocate much,” he says, and this statement sums up the crack in his armor. “If a man climbs to the top of a mountain, then he’s on the mountaintop alone. If he takes people with him, then it’s a nice place to be.”
Today, he’s back at work. He’s catching up with his son, and so proud of his daughter it’s almost heartbreaking. One of his prized students has opened a karate school in Alma, and Butch will help teach – one night a week. He’s also telling his story from the pulpit, and plans to take an online seminary course come fall.
He is tested regularly, but doesn’t lose sleep worrying about what might happen if the tables turn. “Worst case scenario I go to Heaven,” Butch says, and then his voice wavers for a second. “My only heartache is thinking about leaving my family behind.”