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Marine faces the battle of his life

June 14, 2000|By JOSH POLTILOVE

Jay Minnick was watching television when cameras captured a U.S. Marine, hospitalized and unable to speak after the 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks, write "Semper Fi," the Corps' motto, on a piece of paper.

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At that moment, Minnick decided he wanted to become a Marine. He didn't know then that he, too, would one day lie in a hospital bed, waging a battle for his life against cancer.

Minnick joined the Marine Corps in 1991, the day after he graduated from Boonsboro High School. He served in Somalia, Liberia, Albania and Bosnia/Herzegovina and rose to the rank of staff sergeant.

"I've lived through four conflicts and never had a scratch," said Minnick, 27, who lives in Sharpsburg with his wife and two sons. "I've been very fortunate."

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While stationed as a reserve instructor at Andrews Air Force Base, he had problems breathing one August day. Doctors took X-rays and told him he probably had a pinched nerve.

On Sept. 7, 1999, he returned to Malcolm Grove Hospital at Andrews after coughing up blood. He learned a 10-centimeter tumor in the middle of his chest was causing a fluid buildup and shrinking his lung.

Doctors wanted to try chemotherapy on the rapidly growing lymphoma. He returned home, but when the fluid in his left lung needed draining, he was taken to the hospital and a chest tube was inserted.

He soon was transferred to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and a catheter was inserted to drain the fluid around his heart. Within two days he developed pneumonia and a clot formed in his left lung.

Doctors were unsure if he would survive.

"He got very sick very quickly," said Minnick's doctor, Capt. Joseph M. Flynn. "He almost died. He stood a very reasonable chance of dying in days if he didn't turn around and stabilize."

Doctors told Minnick he had 72 hours to live. He was retired that day, Sept. 23, and Marines sat by his bed in 12-hour shifts.

"The doctor called me on the phone and told me that he only had 72 hours," Jay's wife Sherry said. "I told the doctor, 'You're terrifying me.'

"He said, 'You should be terrified.'"

Jay Minnick said the experience was frightening, but he held on to his never-say-die attitude.

"I used to always tell my wife I was bulletproof," Minnick said. "Then one day I'm laying on my back in a hospital with tubes sticking out of me. I never once thought I was going to die. My wife was there, and I told her the night they told me I wasn't going to die."

He fought.

Treatments helped stabilize the disease and over time his condition improved. Flynn said Minnick won the first skirmish, but the battle for complete recovery continues.

Minnick remains on the Corps' temporary retired disabled list. He has T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, which is cancer affecting the body's lymph nodes. For now, his nodes are normal.

He takes steroids on a daily basis and has chemotherapy and radiation treatments sometimes two to three days a week, depending on where he is in his intensive regimen.

The treatments, which will continue for at least 26 months, have side effects.

"It's probably the worst experience of my life," Minnick said. "There were probably two months where I couldn't eat red meat without throwing up. Chemotherapy's bad, but what's the alternative? Dying."

He's been bald several times. His feet feel like they are asleep all the time.

"Jay's not the type of person to ever give up," said Sherry, who has been married to Jay for seven years. "He would tell everybody when they couldn't believe the things he survived, 'I'm a Marine, what do you expect?'"

"It's an amazing success story. He was so sick, and now, now he had Christmas with them. He was there for Easter," said Flynn, who has been at Walter Reed for four years. "That's amazing that he got to spend those holidays with them."

Minnick is waging a war for complete recovery. He said he knows he can win.

"For the first two months anybody's going to ask why," he said. "I don't ask why now. I just try to beat it."

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