LAND O’LAKES — The cancer pressing Steven Barnabei’s brain couldn’t wait.
He had barely finished breakfast after his first round of tests when the doctors called his mom. They found the malignant, tennis ball-sized lump that had been making his head ache and eye twitch for weeks, and they had to get rid of it. Immediately.
The doctor met him at the emergency room door.
So just three weeks after finishing the best run of his cross country career at Land O’Lakes High School, Barnabei was racing across town, from one hospital to another, and into emergency surgery.
Doctors weren’t sure he’d survive.
• • •
The first time Barnabei tried to run, back in middle school football tryouts, he threw up after the first lap.
He tried running again before his freshman year, and he stuck with it long enough to swell with pride as his times fell. When he was on the course, the pressures of tough classes and a single-parent home disappeared.
By his junior season, Barnabei was the Gators’ co-captain, and his personal-best 5K result was down to 17 minutes, 10 seconds.
“He found his niche,” Land O’Lakes coach Kris Keppel said, “and running is a part of it.”
Around the time Barnabei finished 14th to help his team win the conference championship, the searing headaches began. Numbness started in the right side of his face and spread to his hand. He couldn’t stop his left eye from twitching.
Barnabei convinced himself the warning signs were normal side effects from a growth spurt.
When the symptoms spiked so much he couldn’t last a full day of school or play guitar, he finally relented. His mother, Mary Anne, took him to get an MRI exam Nov. 2, when his Gators were preparing for the Class 3A, District 6 meet at Crews Lake Park.
The test results from BayCare Outpatient Imaging came back quickly: malignant anaplastic ependymoma. The cancerous tumor swelling in the left side of his head was pushing the right side of his brain against his skull. Doctors couldn’t promise that removing the lump would save his life, but they had to try.
“It had to be done,” his mother said.
Doctors canceled their appointments to rush Barnabei into the operating room at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital of Tampa. Less than six hours after his MRI exam, he was in surgery.
Thirty miles north, his team prayed.
• • •
Barnabei survived the three-hour surgery — he was back to eating grits and drinking orange juice the next morning — but he wasn’t out of the woods yet.
He needed 33 doses of radiation in December and January. When his mother went back to work to pay his medical bills, teammates shuttled him from school to Moffitt Cancer Center. They helped him out with a meal here and there and, when he was ready, helped him get a job at Publix. Keppel collects donations for the Barnabeis’ medical fund at SunTrust Bank.
“He has some friends,” his coach said, “but this is really his family.”
Barnabei’s stomach still felt queasy two weeks after surgery when he took the four-hour car ride to Tallahassee to watch the 3A state meet. With his initials on their jerseys, his Gators finished 11th.
“Just a constant reminder that they’re ready to support me,” Barnabei said.
By February, Barnabei was ready to support them, too. In his first track meet back, he placed third in the 3,200 meters.
Two weeks later, on March 4, doctors declared him cancer free.
“I deemed him my miracle in progress when he was in radiation,” his mom said. “We have received our miracle, and I think it’s gonna stay that way with God’s help.”
• • •
Barnabei recovered better than even he expected. The hair is still growing back over his scar and his short-term memory is fuzzy, but the headaches disappeared. Therapy has improved his slurred speech, and his hand is strong enough for guitar music to fill his home.
Last weekend’s 5K finish (17:55.69) is already a minute faster than this time last fall, and his preseason run was only six seconds from his personal record. Barnabei has established himself as the No. 4 runner on one of Pasco County’s top teams, and Keppel thinks he’s fast enough to run in college.
“I don’t have words for what I’ve done,” Barnabei said.
But the senior does have an idea about what helped save him: his team. Returning to running gave him something to look forward to in the hospital. The routine helped him get through energy-draining rounds of radiation. And after years of brutal workouts, his body knew how to put itself back together.
“If it wasn’t for (Keppel) making sure Steven was in top-notch condition,” his mom said, “I don’t think we would have had the same outcome.”
Barnabei said the toughest part of his ordeal wasn’t the surgery or the pain or the fear. It was his first run back, when he felt like a rookie trying out for football again.
He was still being blasted with radiation five times a week when he returned for 6 torturous, eight-minute miles in the winter.
Instead of burning through his usual fast warmup, Barnabei joked with his teammates to take it easy — he was getting too old for this.
“I sucked through it,” Barnabei said, “because I knew I had a team to commit to.”
So he ran, past the school, out of the woods, to Tower Road. He breathed in deep. His stomach settled. His mind relaxed. His legs pounded the ground.
The pressure was finally gone.