SHELDON—Steve Holles is a believer in Christmas miracles.
The Sheldon man received a phone call on Dec. 26 that told him he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“There’s no sense getting bent out of shape about it,” Steve said on June 26. “I’ve never really had any fear. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, the disease is seldom detected in its early stages, but because Steve’s cancer was caught early enough, it was deemed operable.
“Usually, by the time you find out you have it, it’s usually too late,” Steve said. “Your life can turn on the flip of a switch — and that’s basically what happened.”
Steve, who turned 60 on Friday, July 5, was a candidate for an extensive surgery called a Whipple procedure, which also is known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy.
The pancreas is an organ in a person’s abdomen that lies horizontally behind the lower part of the stomach.
The pancreas releases enzymes that aid digestion and hormones that help manage a person’s blood sugar.
Before he underwent the surgery, Steve worked with Dr. Steven Powell, a Sanford Health medical oncologist, to set up chemotherapy treatments at Sanford USD Medical Center in Sioux Falls, SD.
Steve underwent four rounds of chemotherapy between Jan. 10 and Feb. 21 and then the Whipple procedure — which took about eight hours — on April 5 at the Sioux Falls hospital and has been recovering since then.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the surgery Steve underwent “is a complex operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine (duodenum), the gallbladder and the bile duct.”
‘He went yellow’
Dr. Thavam Thambi-Pillai, a Sanford Health transplant surgeon, was in charge of Steve’s Whipple procedure.
“They removed his gall bladder, 50 percent of his pancreas, and rewired part of his stomach tubing down to his small intestine,” said Jo, Steve’s 56-year-old wife.
While Steve is recovering from a successful surgery, he and Jo initially were concerned about his physical health in late December because his skin was beginning to turn an abnormal color.
Jo received a text message on Dec. 20 from Kenny Schilling of Little Rock — a co-worker of Steve’s at Sudenga Industries Inc. near George whom Jo calls a “guardian angel” — saying that Steve looked yellow.
“The whites of his eyes were yellow, his head where he has no hair, ears — everything was yellow,” Jo said. “It was just like a bad sunburn, but it was yellow.
“You know how you do a sunburn and it goes white and then the red pops out at you?” she said. “I pushed in on him and he was white there and then he went yellow. I told him he needed to go to the doctor.”
Steve went to the Sanford Sheldon Clinic on Dec. 21 for a doctor’s appointment. He was transported by an ambulance to Sanford USD that same day.
He was scheduled to undergo various examinations on Dec. 22 at the Sioux Falls hospital, but Steve and Jo were told only parts of the tests might be completed because the pathologist was not expected to show up on the weekend before Christmas.
“They were waiting for the pathologist to be able to read the stuff,” Steve said. “The doctor said that the pathologist never usually comes in on weekends, and it’s Christmas weekend, so it’d be a miracle if he came in.”
However, Steve and Jo received another Christmas miracle — the pathologist was going to come into work after all.
“They said that was a miracle that he came in on that Saturday,” Steve said.
Steve was put under anesthesia while he underwent a procedure during which doctors used an endoscope — a long, flexible, lighted tube — to look at:
- The inside of his upper gastrointestinal tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach and the first part of the small intestine.
- The inside of his liver, gallbladder, bile ducts and pancreas.
“They were taking a scope down to look at how bad the bile duct was clogged,” Jo said, noting that was the reason why Steve’s skin had turned yellow, which means jaundice had developed.
“The bile duct was clogged so they put a stent in it,” she said. “Immediately as they started putting the stent in and got it working, it worked wonderfully.”
‘Doing a lot better’
A small tumor — about an inch by an inch — was found on Steve’s pancreas. For perspective, a normal pancreas measures about 6 inches long.
“They said it was self-contained and it was round and it didn’t have any feelers and it wasn’t on an artery,” Jo said of the tumor. “That was our third Christmas miracle.”
About 3 inches of Steve’s pancreas was removed during the Whipple procedure on April 5. Despite half of it being gone, his pancreas has been functioning relatively well since the surgery.
Even though Steve’s Whipple procedure was deemed a success, his recovery from the surgery did not start smoothly. He remained hospitalized for 63 days between Sioux Falls and Sheldon.
After the Whipple procedure, he stayed at Sanford USD April 5-22 and then received skilled care at Sanford Sheldon Medical Center April 22-May 9.
However, he had to return to the Sioux Falls hospital because of various infections and remained there May 9-15 before returning to skilled care at Sanford Sheldon May 16-June 6.
“I’m doing a lot better now than I was,” Steve said. “Both hospitals were excellent in their care.”
During that part of his recovery, Steve was among 160 game officials honored at the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s 25th annual Officials Banquet and Recognition Ceremony on April 27 in Des Moines.
Steve was honored for 25 years of service to the IHSAA. He has been a referee for freshman, junior varsity and junior high boys and girls basketball for a quarter century and a varsity volleyball official for about five years.
‘Keep it as strong’
As far as his recovery from the Whipple procedure, Steve finally returned to his Sheldon home on June 6. Steve still has seven rounds of chemotherapy left to undergo at Sanford USD after recently going through another round.
“They took 14 of his lymph nodes and three of them were cancerous,” Jo said of Steve’s surgery. “That surprised them because of the chemo that he took. It’s so hard that they thought those would be killed.
“When we asked about his next eight chemos, they said they’re going to keep it as strong because they don’t want anything lurking there like those three lymph nodes,” she said. “We said we appreciate that.”
Steve, who returned to work at Sudenga on June 27 for the first time since he underwent the Whipple procedure, is thankful that his surgery was deemed a success, but he is concerned that pancreatic cancer runs in his family.
He and Jo, who works as a Title I reading teacher at Sheldon Middle School, have a 27-year-old son named Nathan, who lives in Atlanta, and a 24-year-old daughter named Janessa, who resides in Waco, TX.
Steve’s brother Keith Holles of Worthington, MN, died on March 2, 2016, at the age of 59 from pancreatic cancer.
Their father, 71-year-old Robert “Bob” Holles of Sheldon, died on Oct. 30, 2004, of the same disease, which had affected his pancreas, liver and other parts of his abdominal area.
Jo recalled a conversation she had with Nathan on Dec. 21 while they were driving up to Sioux Falls as Steve was being transported by an ambulance to Sanford USD.
“We were talking about how Steve looked like his dad when they diagnosed him with his cancer,” Jo said. “All we could think of was, ‘What a Christmas this is going to be.’ Then we got those Christmas miracles.”