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Son of Iran RPCV Bob Dunkle fought near-fatal bout of leukemia
Son of Iran RPCV Bob Dunkle fought near-fatal bout of leukemia
Healer from the Hardcourt
By RICK MORWICK
Daily Journal sports editor
Johnson County, Indiana - July 26-27, 2003 For a practitioner of family medicine, Dr. Dave Dunkle had a relatively light week.
He saw eight patients on Monday and wasn’t exactly swamped with appointments each day thereafter.
But in time, he knows that will change. Or at least that’s his objective.
On Monday, Dunkle opened his own medical practice in Franklin. One of seven partners in the Family Physicians of Johnson County medical group, he is accepting new patients and hopes to see as many as 40 a day when his practice is firmly established.
“I have had a lot of people tell me they can’t wait till I get down here to open up, that they’re going to come see me,” said Dunkle, who recently completed a three-year residency at St. Francis Hospital Beech Grove. “I’m still not sure everybody even knows I’m in the area now.”
Even so, the affable 31-year-old physician doesn’t mind biding his time.
After four years of college, four years of medical school, three years of residency and a near-fatal bout of leukemia, the former Franklin College basketball star is savoring the fulfillment of a long-time dream.
Born in Iran to parents who served there in the Peace Corps, Bob Dunkle grew up in West Lafayette and has been interested in medicine for as long as he can remember, mainly because higher education was constantly stressed in the family household.
He wanted to become a family doctor; he wanted to practice in his adopted hometown of Franklin; and he wanted to partner with Dr. Doug Bullington, his personal physician during his battle with leukemia.
Displaying the same steely resolve that facilitated his survival and fueled his shockingly quick return to basketball, Dunkle has achieved all that he set out to accomplish.
“I really enjoy what I do,” said Dunkle, who sees patients at offices in Franklin and Greenwood. “I love forming relationships with people, helping them as far as overcoming illness, especially with family medicine.
“With family medicine, you’re not just a doctor. You’re a part of the family. You’re a friend. And I think that’s the beauty of family medicine.”
Dunkle’s desire to start a family practice stemmed from his monthslong stay in the hospital during the spring, summer and early fall of 1991.
Although he was leaning toward a career in medicine before his illness, Dunkle was touched and impressed by the care he received from most of the doctors and nurses he came in contact with at the Indiana University Medical Center.
As a result, his near-fatal ordeal cemented his future.
“My experience with leukemia just re-enforced my career decision,” Dunkle said. “I had such a good relationship with my physicians. I met so many great doctors when I was at IU.
“It just re-enforced the idea that this is what I want to do. I want to be able to help people.”
Born in Iran to parents who served there in the Peace Corps, Dunkle grew up in West Lafayette and has been interested in medicine for as long as he can remember, mainly because higher education was constantly stressed in the family household.
When he was a child, Dunkle’s father, Bob, used to read him a book at bedtime. But instead of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, his father read from a medical encyclopedia.
“He used to read to me about different diseases,” Dunkle said. “The only thing I was ever afraid of was Rocky Mountain spotted fever, about being bit by a tick.”
Successfully balancing books and basketball growing up, Dunkle eventually enrolled at Franklin College in the fall of 1990 to study biology and continue his athletic career.
He played occasionally as a freshman but, at 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he was expected to assume a considerably larger role as a sophomore.
But the plan – and his life – were in serious jeopardy in the spring of 1991.
Bothered by a series of colds, Dunkle often felt fatigued, so much so that the 19-year-old often took the elevator to his third-floor classes in Barnes Hall.
Teammates suggested that all he needed was a good vacation to recharge his batteries. So he accompanied them on a spring break trip to Florida, where he began to feel worse.
Feeling more tired than ever and coughing up blood on the trip back to Franklin, Dunkle – who thought he had mononucleosis — went for blood tests at the bequest of his then-physician, Dr. Hugh Andrews.
Still thinking nothing serious was wrong, Dunkle was stunned when he received a call about the results of his tests. Because Andrews was out of the office at the time, the call came from Bullington. The news he delivered was devastating.
Dunkle had acute leukemia, a malignant disorder of the bone marrow. He had to get to the hospital immediately.
With his parents in West Lafayette, Dunkle called his basketball coach, Kerry Prather, who drove him to the IU medical center in Indianapolis that very afternoon.
A short time later, Bullington became Dunkle’s personal physician when Andrews retired.
“He was looking at a potentially fatal process,” Bullington said. “But he was never, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’ He was just very matter of fact. He was almost like, ‘OK, here’s this problem, what do we do to take care of it?’
“I liked that in him as far as being a physician.”
News of Dunkle’s illness was devastating to his coaches and teammates.
John Holden was Dunkle’s roommate and one of his best friends on the team. And he recalls the collective shock when the Grizzlies learned Dunkle might never leave the hospital alive.
“We were concerned about getting Dave back with us,” said Holden, the Grizzlies’ top player at the time. “It happened pretty quick. We came back from spring break, and all of a sudden Dave’s in the hospital.
“The upcoming basketball season was pretty much secondary. We wanted to get Dave back healthy. We wanted him back with us.”
A bone marrow transplant, platelet transfusions and five rounds of literally gut-wrenching chemotherapy were part of what lay ahead for Dunkle.
Doctors gave him less than a 20 percent chance of surviving the treatment. And if he survived the treatment, they gave him a 10 percent chance of reaching his 21st birthday.
Playing basketball again was the least of anyone’s worries. Except for Dunkle.
Driven by the single-minded goal of returning for his sophomore season, Dunkle channeled all of his physical, emotional and mental energy toward healing so he could get back on the court.
But Prather had serious doubts after witnessing the ravishing effects of chemotherapy.
Designed to kill cancerous cells in bone marrow, the chemo induced violent vomiting episodes that burst blood vessels and caused his eyes to swell shut.
On some days, he was barely recognizable.
“The question at hand was whether or not he was going to live,” Prather said. “I just couldn’t imagine in a matter of months that he was going to be back on the court. I just thought that was more of an uphill climb than anyone could realistically make.
“But at the same time, the prospect for doing that was the thing that was Dave’s primary motivation for fighting the thing. He was going to play again. He was going to start. He was going to achieve what he set out to do.”
And he did.
By mid-September of 1991, Dunkle was released from the hospital after being admitted in April. He immediately went back to school and started conditioning his dramatically weakened body for basketball.
He reported, in shape, for the first practice and started every game during what became Franklin’s greatest season in modern history.
Ranked No. 3 nationally in NAIA Division II, the Grizzlies won a team-record 25 games, lost only four and advanced to the final eight of the national tournament in Stephenville, Texas.
Dunkle earned all-conference honors and would remain one of the league’s best inside players for the next two years.
He scored 1,041 points in his career, one of only 26 players in Franklin history to score more than 1,000.
“At the end of the national tournament, I talked a little bit about what a great season it had been,” Prather said. “But I told them even if we hadn’t gotten here, the fact is, Dave’s here.
“The rest of it, in a way, has all been above and beyond.”
But Dunkle’s presence was more than symbolic. He played a pivotal role on a senior-oriented team.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re playing that guy in checkers or one-on-one or for a conference championship, or he’s going to school to start a career, he’s going to succeed,” said Holden, who still speaks with Dunkle several times a week. “He is determined to finish whatever he wants to do.
“There was no doubt that this day (starting medical practice) was going to happen for him because he is so determined. He’s competitive, and he’s going to win.”
And he’s determined to make each day count.
“I spent the better part of five or six months in the hospital that summer,” Dunkle said. “You kind of tell yourself, ‘Once you get better from this, you’re going to live life.’ You get caught up in living life at a pretty fast pace, and you just don’t always stop to enjoy it.
“I promised myself when I was in the hospital that when I got better, I’d do my best to enjoy life.”
Dunkle graduated from Franklin with a biology degree in 1994. He then attended the IU School of Medicine, where he graduated in 2000.
Working closely with Bullington, Dunkle completed his three-year residency at St. Francis, where his resolve to become a doctor was tested frequently.
“When you’re working a 120-hour week, sometimes you just sit back and say, ‘I’m not enjoying this. This isn’t fun. Is it worth it?’” Dunkle said. “Outside people always say, ‘Oh, it’ll be worth it in the long run.’
“But you’re not the one who hasn’t showered in two days, or had to tell someone that they have a deadly disease, or at three in the morning they call a cardiac arrest in the hospital and you’re the doctor trying to resuscitate that patient, then having to go out and face the wife, the family and say you’re sorry they died.”
Yet for Dunkle, who still plays pickup basketball in his spare time, the rewards of practicing medicine far outweigh the pitfalls.
A people person in the purest sense of the term, Dunkle has a genuine love for humanity that was forged, in part, by his own battle against a deadly disease
“People like him, and he can relate to them,” Bullington said. “He can relate to the patient from the standpoint of having some empathy for what they’re going through. That’s probably what makes the best physician, someone who can relate to their patients.
“He’s the type of doctor that I would want to go to, and he’s the type of doctor I would want my family to go to.”
Dunkle invites anyone who is looking for a family physician to give him a try. He treats newborns, geriatrics and patients of all ages in between. And he promises to be more than just a doctor.
He wants to be an active partner in overall good health.
“That’s one of the things that I think is fantastic about family medicine, preventative health care,” Dunkle said. “Being able to really harp on people about ‘Don’t smoke, be healthy, exercise,’ because these are things we know that can increase your life span.
“I really enjoy that about family medicine, having an opportunity to help people not only get healthy, but stay healthy.”
Portions © 2003 The Daily Journal, Johnson County, Indiana.
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