By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Terminal cancer patient Tim Hermetz maintains a positive attitude inspiring others while enduring the storms of life, fighting a grim prognosis and his dad’s sudden death.
He’s been called a miracle and a mystery. Cullman resident Tim Hermetz’s four-year survival of a fatal, incurable cancer is miraculous, his doctors say. Yet, it remains a mystery how he contracted Stage IV malignant mesothelioma, a terminal, rare cancer of the abdominal lining normally fatal to its victims within a year.
As a young boy, Tim lived in downtown Cullman, and as 10-year-old boys are want to do, he often played among the rubble of construction projects at his home, church and school. Hermetz and his family never knew that as a young Cub Scout and as a student and member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and School, Tim could have been exposing himself to deadly asbestos fibers, which would lead to a terminal cancer diagnosis four decades later.
Overcoming adversity amid the storms of life has been routine for Tim Hermetz.
“For years I enjoyed good health and was active at work and in the community,” he said. “You don’t appreciate good health until you lose it.”
Now, Hermetz, 54, is considered a success story for overcoming a painful, terminal cancer that has killed millions of Americans and others worldwide.
Most newly diagnosed patients with malignant mesothelioma live an average of eight to 12 months after diagnosis,” Hermetz said. “I’ve lived four years since my May 27, 2009, diagnosis. I feel blessed. Every day is a gift.”
Hermetz credits his survival to prayer support from friends, relatives and church members in Cullman and across the country, as well as world-class care from doctors and nurses at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Hermetz also says that being active in his church, community and as a local and nationwide cancer recovery advocate has helped him survive his terminal cancer diagnosis. There is no treatment for malignant mesothelioma. All of Hermetz’s treatment and care has been palliative in an effort to save his life while improving symptoms of the disease, which Hermetz says have been “horrific.”
Hermetz is being treated locally at Cullman Oncology and Hematology and Cullman Regional Medical Center. In 2009, he was one of the first recipients of the nationwide referral services of CRMC’s Cancer Nurse Navigation Program. CRMC’s Dr. Lori McGrath and Hermetz’s local oncologist, Dr. Harry Yu of Cullman Oncology, helped Hermetz locate lifesaving treatment at the National Cancer Institute, one of 27 institutes of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The NIH Clinical Center, where Hermetz has been a patient and a medical research volunteer since June 2009, is the world’s largest medical research facility. The NIH, founded in 1887, is dedicated to fostering discovery at the frontiers of science and medicine.
An agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH conducts and supports medical research to uncover new knowledge that will improve the health of all Americans and the human condition throughout the world. The NIH is the world's largest source of funding for medical research, creating hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs by funding thousands of scientists in universities and research institutions in every state across America and around the globe.
Hermetz says he is inspired each time he visits NIH’s 300-acre campus outside of Washington, D.C. “There is no way I can be depressed when I visit NIH. Everything is first class, state of the art, cutting-edge,” he says. “The patients and health care professionals there are from all over the world and are highly trained, experienced and knowledgeable in hundreds of diseases and conditions, including rare, incurable cancers such as malignant mesothelioma.”
Doctors at NIH declared Hermetz a miracle in January 2010. The Cullman native survived a rare, incurable cancer diagnosis in which he was weeks away from death when oncologists and surgeons at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) intervened to save his life in June 2009.
Dr. Raffit Hassan told Hermetz, “We see three to four of these cases per month.” Dr. Hassan is an NCI oncologist, senior investigator and Head of the National Cancer Institute’s Solid Tumor Immunotherapy Section in the Laboratory of Molecular Biology.
Dr. Hassan told Hermetz, “It‘s pretty routine for us to treat patients with your cancer," Tim recalled. His case was considered hopeless by other doctors prior to his NIH evaluation in June 2009. During his May 2009 CRMC hospitalization, in which he was first diagnosed with terminal cancer, Hermetz was told to consider hospice and home health care upon his discharge from the hospital.
“In January 2010, I thanked Dr. Itzhak Avital, my National Cancer Institute surgeon, for saving my life,” Hermetz said. “Don’t thank me. Thank the man upstairs,” Avital, a French-Israeli and Tumor Immunology Section Investigator with NCI’s Surgery Branch, said while pointing his index finger to the ceiling as he looked heavenward, Hermetz recalls.
Hermetz gets emotional when talking about his treatment. When he was a research study volunteer at NIH 25 years ago while living and working in Washington, D.C., he never dreamed he’d return to Maryland and the NIH for lifesaving surgery and ongoing care for this incurable, rare cancer. "Bethesda is Biblical,” Hermetz said. “Bethesda means ‘House of Mercy’ in Aramaic and ‘House of Kindness’ in Hebrew. NIH has been a ‘House of Mercy’ and a ‘House of Kindness’ to me the past four years."
When Hermetz lived in Washington in the 1980s, he worked on Capitol Hill as an intern for U.S. Sen. Howell Heflin and as administrative assistant to the president of the Orphan Foundation of America. Hermetz later worked at Georgetown University Hospital, at Arnold & Porter, Washington, D.C.’s largest law firm, at the Sheraton-Carlton Hotel near the White House and as post production supervisor for five national TV shows.
Hermetz says he feels blessed to be accepted as a research study patient at the National Cancer Institute. In June 2009, he had nowhere else to turn. He credits CRMC’s Director of Marketing and Community Relations, Maria Stanford, with directing him to CRMC’s Nurse Navigation Program.
CRMC nurse navigators Lori McGrath and Kathy Tolbert, along with Dr. Harry Yu, helped him get accepted at NCI and the NIH in Bethesda when UAB, Emory, Vanderbilt, M.D. Anderson and other prominent cancer centers could not treat his rare cancer.
Hermetz needed the controversial HIPEC hot chemotherapy bath inside his open abdominal cavity during his first NIH cytoreduction and debulking surgeries. The first six-hour surgery at NIH, was the biggest surgery a person can have, and saved Hermetz’s life, but left him feeling like he had been hit by a Mack truck. “I had to trust God and trust my surgeon,” Hermetz said. “I put it all into God’s hands. God did not let me down. He is faithful. I’m still here!”
Nearly 95 percent of Hermetz’s cancer was removed. “It was the worst case of cancer I’ve ever seen,” reported Dr. Itzhak Avital, Hermetz’s NCI surgeon to the Hermetz family. “Tim would have died within a few weeks if he had gone home and had nothing but chemo.”
Since recovering from surgery and intraperitoneal chemotherapy at NIH in the summer of 2009, Hermetz underwent eight months of chemotherapy in Cullman. He returned to NIH for surgery in June 2010 when his cancer reoccurred with a bowel obstruction which prevented him from eating or drinking for weeks. Tim lost 85 pounds from his July 2009 surgery. A year later, he lost 25 pounds from his July 2010 surgery, for an overall loss of 100 pounds since his May 2009 cancer diagnosis.
Hermetz’s July 2010 intestinal resection surgery required him to spend weeks at the NIH Clinical Center Hospital, following postponement of his surgery due to a blood infection. Among the 10,000 patients seen at the Clinical Center each year, Hermetz is well known at NIH’s Clinical Center for his frequent inpatient and outpatient visits to participate in ongoing research.
Since his July 2010 surgery, Hermetz has returned to the NIH dozens of times. He’s participated in numerous clinical research studies for new anti-cancer drugs, immunotherapy and chemotherapy. The first study drug proved ineffective in stopping his abdominal tumor growth. He was offered the chance to participate in a new anti-cancer drug study and accepted immediately, beginning treatment a week after his father’s sudden death on Oct. 12.
Hermetz had been traveling to NIH three out of four weeks a month to participate in a new chemo drug study, requiring him to be hospitalized each visit. “The prognosis for my cancer isn’t good,” Hermetz said stoically. “It’s considered an aggressive, deadly cancer for which there’s no cure. I must accept every opportunity offered to me for treatment. I feel I’m in the best place possible at NIH where world-class scientists and doctors are working together to treat all kinds of cancer and disease.”
The new chemo drug study Hermetz participated in after his father’s death depleted his bone marrow so much that Hermetz had to be withdrawn from the study. In January 2011, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Since then, Hermetz has been diagnosed with lymphoma and lung cancer. He takes it all in stride.
“I’m surviving solely on faith,” Hermetz says. “What else do I have? God has been good to me — giving me four years of life after a terminal cancer diagnosis. I have an obligation to honor this time by serving Him anyway I can.”
“I’m honored to have been nominated last year by the American Cancer Society as a “Hero of Hope” motivational speaker. I was honored to be chosen a 2010 Life Inspiration Award recipient for ‘Survivor of the Year’ by the Cullman County chapter of the American Cancer Society,” Hermetz said.
“As a cancer success story, I have an obligation to share my message of hope and healing with others,” Hermetz said. “I’ve learned so much. I feel like I’ve earned a medical degree.”
One of the greatest sources of strength in Hermetz’s cancer battle has been his father, the late Rev. Harold Hermetz, pastor emeritus of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Cullman. Rev. Hermetz died Oct. 12 at CRMC after a brief illness. “I lost my father, my friend, my faithful traveling companion, my cancer caregiver, my role model and my hero.”
Hermetz said the death of his father as well as the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, threatened to crush him emotionally at a time when he was hoping a new NIH anti-cancer drug would work for him, he saw his childhood home, the Klein House, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church’s parsonage in downtown Cullman, destroyed, and later demolished, as a result of the April 27 tornadoes.
These traumatic events threatened to crush Hermetz emotionally, but instead, made him stronger. “I could not quit. I had to decide to continue fighting, when so many others would have given up,” he said.
After postponing treatment at NIH for weeks due to his father’s illness and death, Hermetz learned the drug known as IMC-A12, wasn’t working for him. “My tumor was growing.”
“We have to change course,” NIH/NCI oncologist Dr. Raffit Hassan told Hermetz. “You’re still in pretty good shape, compared to other patients.”
Hermetz said it’s hard to travel alone to NIH where he sees his dad everywhere he goes — in the airports, on the shuttle buses, in the Clinical Center lobby, patient library, cafeteria, chapel, exam rooms and hospital rooms. “My dad was there every step of the way helping me from diagnosis, in the ER, in the OR, in recovery, in ICU, on outpatient follow-up visits, at home and when I accepted the American Cancer Society’s “Survivor of the Year Life Inspiration Award” in August 2010. My dad was ever-present, always available and willing to do anything to help me. He was my inspiration.”
Hermetz said losing his father while battling Stage IV incurable cancer is the hardest test and trial of life that he’s ever faced. Yet, he knows that his dad would not want him to give up. “He would want me to keep fighting, to help the family during this time of grief, sorrow and loss. That’s what I’ve done. That’s what’s kept me alive.”
“I was blessed to have a close relationship with my dad,” Hermetz said. “Most men never get to have that with their dads.”
“Since contracting cancer, the tables were turned,” Hermetz said. “My dad became my caregiver, my driver, my traveling companion. We were interdependent on one another.”
“I’m trying to honor my dad by continuing his life of service,” Hermetz said. “He had a passion for helping people.
I pray daily that I live long enough to help people by leaving a lasting legacy of service in honor of my father who sacrificed so much throughout his life serving God,” Hermetz added.
“My hope and prayer is that my participation in medical research will benefit many people for years to come, helping scientists and doctors at NIH, ‘America’s research hospital,’ learn more about preventing, treating and curing cancer,” Hermetz said.
“That’s why I participate each year in Cullman County’s Relay For Life. I get strength from the many local volunteers, from the cancer survivors, caregivers and family members who share a bond with my family and me,” Hermetz said. “We’re all soldiers in the war on cancer. One day we’re going to win and defeat cancer — all cancers.”
“There can be no more powerful force than uniting for a common cause to help the American Cancer Society fight one of the world’s most feared diseases,” Hermetz said. “Cullman County’s Relay for Life” is an excellent way to do this. We’re all in this together.”
“I’m blessed to be able to walk the Relay for Life Survivors’ Walk each year,” Hermetz said. “I’m blessed to live to fight another day.”
For more information on these and other health effects of asbestos exposure see the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Cancer Institute.
The 2013 Relay For Life Cullman will be today at the Cullman County Fairgrounds. Survivors’ dinner will be at 5 p.m. in Building No. 4, followed by the Survivors’ walk at 7 p.m.