by Dennis Dalman
For many harrowing days and nights, Ben Dirkes faced imminent death from a threatening monster, and every dreadful minute his wife, Kerri, faced that monster with him.
And now, thankfully, the monster has been destroyed and Ben is still alive.
There will be a benefit breakfast for the Dirkes family from 8 a.m.-noon Sunday, Jan. 12 at St. Augustine Parish Hall at 442 2nd St. SE in St. Cloud. There will be pancakes, sausages, hash browns and fruit, as well as a silent auction and bake sale during the event.
The monster that almost killed Dirkes was a fast-growing mass of tissue in Dirkes’s brain that doctors described as a “monster tumor.” It was so large and so embedded it took a team of experts to decide just how to go about removing it.
The terrifying journey began last October when Ben began suffering unexplained headaches, dizzy spells and random vomiting. After two scans, doctors notified Ben and his wife they should go to the emergency room immediately. Kerri, notified at work, quickly went home in a state of alarm and drove Ben to the St. Cloud Hospital.
Both were in a state of disbelief. How could this be happening? Ben, only 37, had been a topnotch athlete during his high-school years in Sauk Centre. He was always very physically active and faced no major health problems.
Both Sauk Centre residents, Ben and Kerri Dodd were good friends in high school, but it was only after their college years that their friendship deepened into love, and they married. They have three children – Zoey, 8; Dakota, 6; and Elijah, 2.
More bad news
The news of Ben’s brain tumor was also upsetting because it was yet another fear the family has had to face. For years, Kerri had battled skin cancer, but thankfully last summer she was triumphantly told she was in remission from the disease. Two years ago, both had lost their jobs because of the ongoing economic slowdown and they depleted their savings. They both found jobs again, he as a nursing assistant at Country Manor in Sartell, she as a documents official for loans and compliance at Wolters Kluwer in St. Cloud.
At the hospital, the Dirkeses didn’t have long to ponder the dreadful possibilities Ben faced. Surgery, they were told at first, would go fine. But once neurosurgeons took a closer look, they were stunned by the size of the rapidly growing tumor.
There would be several risky procedures involved in removing it. One required a glue to be inserted in the biggest artery that was attached to the tumor. If that artery would rupture during surgery it could possibly cause a lethal stroke. The tumor was connected to several arteries, and it was so massive it was literally squeezing the brain and causing fluid buildup.
There was a good chance Ben might not come out of it alive.
Ben and Kerri, together in the hospital room, endured a terrifying night. They both felt as if they were facing a virtual death sentence.
Next morning, Ben was wheeled in for surgery, a process that took many hours. Meantime, Kerri and her family and members of Ben’s family sat waiting, nerves jangling, in the waiting room. They tried hard to be brave and hopeful, but they kept bursting into sobs, fearing the worst.
After surgery, Ben was suffering intense pain, but because pain killers would not affect that part of his brain, he had to endure hours of hideous pain. What’s worse is the tumor had still not been removed. The first operation had been the one that prepared the surgical removal.
Even more bad news
Doctors told Kerri the tumor was even bigger than they’d thought. Then they told her it was connected to not just the one main artery but several others. On top of that horrifying news, Kerri heard something even worse. During the surgery the day before, the tumor had moved in the brain, causing a catheter to get wrapped around Ben’s brain stem. The lead surgeon said if they tried to remove the catheter, Ben would likely die.
With such bleak options, there was no choice but to proceed and hope and pray for any kind of “better” outcome.
Before Ben was wheeled to surgery, Kerri told him to vividly remember the faces of their three children “because they need you, and I need you,” she said. She then kissed Ben and told him how much she loved him.
Everyone who’d known Ben, even strangers, were praying for him and his family through the terrifying ordeal. Clergy gathered at the hospital to comfort Kerri and the others.
The complex surgery took all day long.
Finally, Kerri heard from the doctor a word that almost made her swoon with relief: “Stable.” Ben had emerged from surgery in stable condition. Kerri nearly collapsed from a combination of nervous relief, fatigue and hunger. But her relief was tempered later by the news Ben might be virtually paralyzed because during surgery he had suffered four mini-strokes.
In the post-surgery days, doctors and everyone else were amazed Ben was able to breathe on his own. They called it “Miracle Number 2” after “Miracle Number 1,” which was Ben’s surviving the surgery. His recovery, however, was still touch-and-go. Then, later, Kerri was astonished when she noticed Ben move an arm and then a leg.
Everyone, bright with smiles, began to call Ben the “Miracle Man.”
Ben’s recovery continues, with lots of ongoing therapy. He has some cognitive impairment, his right leg is much weaker than his left, his stamina has dwindled, and his brain easily becomes overwhelmed if there are too many stimuli at once. He has to take frequent rests.
Meantime, Kerri and the three children are making endless adjustments, happy ones because they are so grateful a husband and father is alive.
The two youngest children sometimes have trouble understanding why their daddy is not quite the same.
“Dakota knows enough to the point of knowing daddy needs help sometimes and also sometimes needs rest,” Kerri said. “Elijah knows daddy has a bump on his head and can’t wrestle on the floor or play ball with him.”
Kerri said she cannot find words to express how grateful the family is for the overwhelming support and prayers they’ve all received from family, friends, work colleagues and even strangers.
The Dirkeses know there is another long part of their journey – Ben’s continued recovery. Kerri said they all know it will not be an easy road. It will be tough all the way. But that’s OK because they are so happy to have a husband and daddy back home again when, not too long ago, they were almost certain they would never see him again.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.