Westy’s Wish: An Open Letter from the Wife of NBA Hall of Famer, Paul Westphal
I met my husband, Paul, on a blind date. I was a California girl attending the University of Arizona and he was a student playing basketball for the University of Southern California. For the next five decades, we had quite the journey. As a professional athlete and then coach, Paul’s career took us across the country, and the world. We experienced life and raised a family together in whatever city basketball landed us.
Paul had a quick wit about him, was thoughtful, and always put others first. He was active, fun, and especially loved being a grandpa. That’s why I knew something was wrong last June when he started saying things that were out of character for him and began acting confused. He was sleeping 16-18 hours a day, losing weight like crazy, and felt uncoordinated. An athlete describing himself as uncoordinated? Something was terribly wrong.
At first we thought he might not be getting enough oxygen and worried he had a heart problem. We scheduled a visit with a cardiologist in Los Angeles, two hours away from where we were spending the summer in the mountains. Before we got to the appointment, I knew it was going to be something else – something worse. When we checked into the hotel near the clinic, Paul wouldn’t let go of my hand. “This place is so big, it makes me nervous,” he said. Paul had traveled the world and was more than accustomed to large hotels and arenas. Something just wasn’t right.
Following tests, the cardiologist confirmed Paul’s heart was as strong as ever and arranged for him to see a neurologist.
A week later, an MRI found two masses in his brain. Surgery two days later confirmed those masses were in fact tumors. They could remove one, but the doctors said the second was inoperable. It was glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer and for which there is no cure. They gave him no more than 18 months to live. Radiation and chemotherapy started immediately. Team Westy, our group of friends and family who supported us throughout it all, was there for him every hour, every minute of the day to meet all his considerable needs.
When Team Westy drove Paul across the desert back home to Scottsdale in mid-September, he was transitioned to a local neuro-oncologist’s care where his body was able to rest from his recent radiation and chemo. When it was time for standard treatment to continue, he’d have no more radiation but chemo that would wipe him out. Paul had no quality of life whatsoever. None. Down for the count. There had to be a better way! Time for a second opinion.
I reached out to the Barrow Neurological Institute. I heard back from Dr. Nader Sanai, director of the Ivy Brain Tumor Center at Barrow. He gave me his private cell number and said to call whenever I needed. I was blown away. A world renowned neurosurgeon really does this? Yes. This one does.
Team Westy joined Paul and myself for our first meeting with Dr. Sanai via Zoom. We sat together with Paul around the table hanging on the doctor’s every word, making sure we all understood what we were hearing. Dr. Sanai informed us that Paul qualified for an Ivy Phase 0 clinical trial evaluating a promising new drug cocktail. He also said he could remove the second tumor that had been previously deemed inoperable. We were shocked! The tumor was the size of a kiwi and in the middle of the brain, but he explained how he could remove most of it. The surgery carried risks, but the clinical trial gave us hope we couldn’t find anywhere else. Paul understood what he’d need to go through and said yes. Team Westy agreed.
We quickly experienced the warmth, compassion, and personal attention of Barrow. We could see firsthand that the doctors actively care about patients and their families. It is absolutely world-class care both medically and personally.
The 12-hour operation on December 10 was considered a success. Dr. Sanai removed 95% of the tumor, more than he had expected. The next day, Paul was walking and able to feed himself without help. There was no paralysis, one of the risks of brain surgery. He was joking around and was looking forward to going to therapy. His prognosis was promising.
But December 23, a clot formed in Paul’s heart and worked its way up to his brain. I wasn’t ready for him to go, this fast, this soon but God had other plans. He left this world peacefully, into the loving arms of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Paul was a believer and never afraid of death. He was ready for whenever that day would come. January 2, 2021 at 8:05 am PST was his appointed day and hour.
I asked Dr. Sanai if he would speak at Paul’s Celebration of Life and he graciously accepted. He eloquently described the “cocktail” of drugs that were given to Paul before surgery and the large amount found in the tumor at pathology – a thrilling success. But then that blood clot happened. He went on to speak of how the Ivy Brain Tumor Center is aggressively devoted to rapidly identifying new treatment options for glioblastoma and other malignant brain tumors through the largest Phase 0 clinical trials program in the world.
May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month, and I hope you’ll join me in my support for the Ivy Brain Tumor Center and their mission to contribute to a cure for brain cancer within this decade. They will need our help.
Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to fuel this research. When you contribute to Barrow, 100% of your donation is directed to supporting critical research and compassionate care at the Ivy Brain Tumor Center. A generous donor has offered to match all donations! Your impact will be doubled as you support Dr. Sanai and his team as they care for their patients and seek the elusive answers that will remove the death sentence from a diagnosis of glioblastoma.