Pendleton Couple Survives Surreal Vacation Saga

East Oregonian | Dec. 11, 2012 3:50 p.m. | Updated: Dec. 11, 2012 11:50 p.m.

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Daily Astorian

Rob Beck knows that even misadventures have their silver linings.

He knows this even after a European vacation gone wrong, a cancer diagnosis and Superstorm Sandy raging outside his New York City hospital room.

Rob and his wife Kathy had set off for Europe in early October after dreaming all year about the trip. They planned to walk the streets of Paris, float down the Loire River on a barge and hike trails on Italy’s coast. The Beck’s dream vacation, however, would morph into something of a nightmare.

The adventure started according to plan in Paris where Rob and Kathy walked 10 or 12 miles through the city to places such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and Musee D’Orsay. Rob’s legs started feeling oddly weak during a barge trip with friends along French canals. By the time, the couple reached Cinque Terre — a series of hiking trails linking five ocean villages — he could barely walk.

Instead of hiking, Rob and Kathy sat on the balcony of their Vernazza hotel room, 55 steps from the narrow street below, sipping wine and watching other tourists living the couple’s dream.

Rob figured his spinal arthritis had entered some new dimension. Kathy fretted about how she would get Rob on and off trains and planes as they traveled home.

As their jetliner landed in New York City on the return trip, they felt relieved knowing their ordeal was almost over.

Turns out, though, the worst still lay ahead.

“When we landed, we learned Hurricane Sandy was arriving from the southeast,” Rob said. “The airport was closing — we wouldn’t get out of New York for three or four days.”

In pain, he called his Pendleton doctor, who said Rob’s symptoms worried him. Get yourself to an emergency room, he advised, preferably at a teaching hospital. The couple hailed a cab to New York Hospital Queens.

At the medical center, an MRI revealed a mass in Rob’s spine. His neurosurgeon recommended 10 radiation treatments, one a day with the weekend off.

The unexpected diagnosis stunned the Becks. They steeled themselves for the next leg of this improbable vacation.

“It was like getting on a conveyer belt and not being able to get off,” Kathy said.

Before radiation treatments started, they faced the arrival of Sandy. When visiting hours ended at the hospital, Kathy took a taxi to a hotel. Rob watched Sandy’s growing fury from his sixth-floor picture window as wind and rain lashed the surrounding buildings.

Kathy sat in the hotel restaurant with other guests.

“The hotel was completely full,” she said. “Everyone was sheltering inside. The hotel provided a buffet spread.”

As Kathy dined, one of the dining room windows broke out. The next day, she walked out onto Ditmars Boulevard to find downed trees and snapped power poles and a street devoid of taxis or any other kind of vehicle.

“It was like a dead zone,” she said. “On every single street, there was a huge oak or maple tree down. I thought, ‘How will they ever dig themselves out?’”

Kathy had never seen the city in normal times. This was her first visit to the Big Apple.

By the next day, taxis started running again and she made her way back to her husband.

They got some news. Doctors had located the source of Rob’s cancer in his prostate. They absorbed this information with disbelief — Rob had gotten his prostate screened only five weeks before leaving on vacation and came out clean.

As the treatment got rolling, it sunk in that Sandy may have been a blessing in disguise. The hospital, they realized, was a top-notch cancer and neurology center with a compassionate, dedicated staff — a silver lining to be sure.

Their dedication impressed the Becks even more considering the storm.

“Lots of them didn’t have power and public transit was closed,” Rob said. “There were several places in the hospital where the staff could take showers and catch some sleep.”

Friends buoyed the Beck’s spirits. Supporters sent texts and Facebook messages with encouragement and offers to help. A college friend of the Beck’s neighbor, Kristin Dunlap, stopped by Rob’s hospital room with pizza.

“Pendleton is a small town — they take care of their own,” Kathy said. “When you are in need, people are amazingly good-hearted, kind, generous, supportive and encouraging.”

Rob’s New York doctors discharged him with a treatment plan to be carried out by a local oncologist - he’ll know more in the coming weeks. The couple is facing the future with optimism, though Rob must use a walker to get around and the lower two-thirds of his body remains somewhat numb. An athletic man who loves to cycle and hike, he expects to make his way back to health.

“The nerves are firing back up,” he said.

Contact Kathy Aney at kaney@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0810.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.


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