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Sweating It Out

Brian Koehler was on top of the world. Tall and athletic, he had a rewarding career as an administrator in the College of Engineering and a great family that shared his passion for fun and recreation. But in an instant, the world he knew changed forever. It was the first week of classes in the fall of 2007. While teaching, he realized he couldn’t hear out of one ear. He didn’t think anything of it; just shook it off as some weird quirk.

But, that evening, as he walked to his car, he found that he could not hear anything at all. Not the cars moving around him, not the normal buzz of the NC State campus. He solicited the help of a nearby Ph.D. student and some colleagues and was rushed to the emergency room.

Four hours later, he got welcome news. An EKG and CT scan showed no problems, a doctor told him, but he should take it easy and see a specialist. At the specialist’s office, about a month later, the diagnosis was confirmed. There was nothing to worry about, he was told.

But, just to be on the safe side, Koehler asked for an MRI. A half-hour after he got home from the imaging center, the doctor was on the phone. This time, the news wasn’t welcome. Koehler, it turned out, had a brain tumor.

This slow growing mass was the size of a golf ball and was pressing on his brainstem. It had completely surrounded the nerves that control balance and hearing. On Feb. 13, 2008, surgeons removed the entire tumor during a complex procedure that took 15 hours. Thankfully, the mass was benign, but the surgery took a heavy toll on Koehler.

“Before the surgery, I  functioned at 100 percent,” Koehler says. “Overnight, that was taken away.”

When he woke up in the recovery room of the hospital, Koehler felt like an invalid.

“I was helpless,” he says. “I felt like a two-month old. I couldn’t do anything for myself. I was mentally there, but I couldn’t move my body or speak. My entire right side was not functioning and my left side was incredibly weak.”

Instead of giving up and feeling sorry for himself, Koehler made a commitment to overcome his physical limitations and recover completely from the surgery. He credits his positive attitude – and his wife’s support – for his quick recovery.

“What was I going to do? Give up? No way. I had a beautiful daughter, Danielle, a wonderful family and a great life ahead of me. I wasn’t going to let this keep me down,” he says.

In six weeks, Brian was back at work, not 100 percent, but doing tremendously well considering he had just undergone major surgery. He was pleased to be back on campus, but physically he had a long way to go. His balance was shot and he could no longer play racquetball, a sport he loved.

Koehler had always been an avid gym user and a devoted member of the Carmichael Complex. But now, he started an exercise regimen with a vengeance, beginning on the stationary bike.

“At first, I was discouraged,” he says. “I had no stamina. I didn’t have the athletic ability that I used to.”

But he kept at it, increasing his exercise time little by little, and seeing modest gains in strength and stamina. The exercise program also helped him develop a social network.

“I had really missed the gym. It’s such a great place to network and see colleagues that I wouldn’t normally see on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s a great place to bring people together. I began looking forward to going again each day.”

His good friend, Jerome Lavelle, was a huge supporter.

“It was early on and I was able to ride 10 miles in 30 minutes,” Koehler says. “I was so excited, I called Jerome and issued him a challenge to match my time. He did it. And we continued to push each other until we got to 12 miles in under 30 minutes. The friendly competition was a real inspiration.”

Koehler is a big advocate of lifelong fitness.

“I have started doing things that I’ll be able to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “I want to be healthy for my family.”

Today, Koehler can be found at the Carmichael Recreation Center four to five days a week, pedaling away for at least 45 minutes before moving on to the weights. While he still feels he has a long way to go, he’s confident that he’s on the right path.

“This experience has shown me the importance of turning a negative into a positive,” he says. “No matter what, we need to practice what we preach and live the right principles throughout life. Be healthy, think positively and live well.”