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ASAA administrator Vreeman battles cancer, heart failure

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 13, 2015

The flier advertising a Sunday night fundraiser for one of Alaska's key high school sports administrators includes a joyful family portrait that no one dared envision the week before the photo was taken.

Isaiah and Shelby Vreeman are all smiles as they hold baby Audrey, who was born Jan. 16.

Audrey herself is a bit of a miracle -- in 2013, the couple endured four miscarriages. The Vreemans had started to believe children weren't part of their future.

But the real miracle is Isaiah, who the week before the photo was taken had been medevacked from Anchorage to Seattle with heart failure. In the frantic hours before he was flown to the University of Washington Medical Center, he went into cardiac arrest and flat-lined.

"I was told by the flight crew that he was one of the sickest patients they had ever flown down there in their career," Shelby said. "We were told he was the sickest patient in the ICU in Anchorage. The outlook was very, very grim.

"By all rights, so many things have happened to him he shouldn't be here, and yet he is. You don't often get to shock doctors, and he's been shocking them in very good ways lately."

After four hours of open-heart surgery Tuesday, Isaiah is now a candidate for a heart transplant. But first he must be cancer-free for three years, because the year before his heart gave out, cancer ravaged Isaiah's once-strong body.

Big tumor, tough recovery

Vreeman, 35, is the director of special events for the Alaska School Activities Association, a job that puts him front and center at most state tournaments. In 2011, he proposed to Shelby at center ice during the intermission of a state hockey championship game.

He was working at the state basketball tournament last year when his back started to bother him. It was a herniated disc, and it turned out to be a godsend, because it led to the discovery of a tumor on his pelvis.

By the time Isaiah underwent 13 hours of surgery in September, the tumor was grapefruit-sized and had invaded his spine, Shelby said. Doctors removed the tumor, plus part of the pelvis and part of the tailbone.

Recovery was arduous.

"He woke up from surgery with no ability to move," Shelby said. "He's gone through times of really good days of not feeling pain and some days where the pain was so bad he literally couldn't get out of bed for days. He couldn't even sit up. It was pretty ugly for some days."

But as time passed, Isaiah gained mobility. He managed to make it to work two or three days a week, ASAA executive director Billy Strickland said, and he could perform some of his duties at home on a computer. In November, he attended the state volleyball tournament in a wheelchair

"Just about a month ago, he was able to move his ankle for the first time," Shelby said.

That was a triumph. But soon came more turmoil, far more turmoil.

'Real turmoil'

Shelby said doctors believe the physical stress caused by six weeks of radiation and the September surgery may have triggered her husband's heart failure.

Isaiah was hospitalized with pneumonia one day late last month, and things swiftly spiraled down. By that night both his heart and liver were failing.

Brad Lauwers, the Dimond High basketball coach, worked with Vreeman for nine years when they coached the Heritage Christian boys basketball team. He was coaching the Lynx in a game that night when UAA basketball coach Rusty Osborne came down from the stands during a break in play. Osborne had heard what was happening at the hospital and shared the news with Lauwers and assistant coach Krehg Perez, a friend of Vreeman's,

"Krehg left immediately," Lauwers said.

By the time Lauwers got to the hospital after the game, a crowd had gathered. "It was feeling like things were in real turmoil," he said.

Overcoming obstacles

Overnight Vreeman went into cardiac arrest. By morning he was on a plane to Seattle, where the life-or-death drama continued.

Surgeons in Anchorage had installed a heart pump that would keep Vreeman going for a few days, so a longer-lasting pump was needed.

But doctors would do the procedure only if the still-unconscious Vreeman was cancer-free and if no brain damage had occurred when his heart stopped.

The first obstacle was cleared when a body scan showed no evidence of cancer, Shelby said. All that remained was for Vreeman to wake up and follow some simple commands.

Doctors set a deadline for that to happen. If it didn't, "we would just wait for the pump to fail," Shelby said.

Vreeman surprised everyone by waking up two days ahead of the deadline, on Super Bowl Sunday. Two days later he got a new pump, and not long after that the photo of him, Shelby and Audrey was taken.

During open-heart surgery this week, a mechanical pump called an LVAD was implanted in Vreeman. The LVAD has internal and external elements -- the pump sits inside the body near the heart's left ventricle and is connected to a cable that runs through the skin to a power pack worn outside the body.

The LVAD can last as long as 10 years and should keep Vreeman going until a heart transplant can happen, Shelby said.

A little therapy baby

On Sunday, Shelby, who is on maternity leave from Stewart Title, will return to Anchorage with Audrey to attend a fundraiser that night at Dimond High.

Sarah Arts, a family friend who is helping with Sunday's event as well as an online fundraising effort, said Vreeman will spend the next month in the hospital and two to three months in a recovery residence that costs $2,000 a month. The hope is that Shelby will be able to take time off work so she and Audrey can stay in Seattle too.

"The overall goal is $30,000 to help offset not only medical bills but make sure Audrey has everything she needs and to allow Shelby to stay and not have to get right back to work," Arts said.

Arts called Audrey "a little therapy baby." Shelby said the child has been the source of joy on some dark, dire days.

Shelby, whose dream of raising a family was denied four times in 2013 by miscarriage, learned she was pregnant in May while the couple was in Seattle for the biopsy that revealed Vreeman's cancer.

"To find out that same week we were going to have a baby…" she said. "We thought there was a good chance we would never be able to have kids. She was the one who stuck around. It made it nice to have something so happy to look at."


5-7 p.m. Sunday, Dimond High

Dinner and silent auction

Suggested donation: $10 adults, $5 children

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