When Mike Marschke drove up to the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in his own car and walked in by himself, he was greeted with an ovation for his brave comeback from the devastating consequences of brain cancer
When Mike Marschke drove up to the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville and, using only a cane, walked inside earlier this month, the YMCA erupted.
The crowd of people in the lobby clapped. They cheered. They congratulated him. All day long, people talked about his accomplishment.
It had taken the Saukville man 11 years of hard work to overcome brain cancer and get to the point where he could drive and then walk on his own into the YMCA — and the people inside the building have been with Marschke every step along the way.
“The friends he’s made here and the support has been motivational,” Marschke’s trainer Lisa Gilane said. “Getting his car and his driver’s license was a big thing. It opens a whole world for him that he didn’t have before. It’s about freedom and independence.
“This is something we thought about more than 10 years ago, the day he would walk into the building by himself. Everyone was making a big fuss over him when he did it. ”
It wasn’t easy. Marschke, 54, who once was a professional motocross racer, had several operations to remove tumors in his brain and relieve an infection — surgeries that left him paralyzed on his right side and suffering with speech aphasia.
The first hint of a problem came in 2000, when Marschke lived in Southern California, and he had a seizure at the auto shop he worked at.
“I remember feeling bad and scaring the mechanics, stumbling around with my foot not working,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was waking up in an ambulance, being told to relax.”
After being diagnosed, Marschke said, he was told by a neurosurgeon in Beverly Hills that his only hope of survival was with doctors at University Hospital in Madison.
So he and his wife Conni Beck packed up and headed to Wisconsin, where his wife’s family lives, he said.
The surgery was a success, and Marschke rebuilt his life. He worked for automobile dealerships throughout the area, but then the cancer returned.
This time, he had surgery at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee, where Marschke said doctors removed “a big hunk” from his brain, noting the tumor was larger than a golf ball.
He got a staph infection that necessitated a second operation, during which a portion of the skull was removed.
He was left with crippling side effects and sent to a nursing home in Mequon for his initial recovery, during which time he was “forced” to take part in therapy, Marschke said.
“I was forced to do it,” he said. “I was shut down and depressed.”
But that changed after he began an aqua-therapy program at the Schroeder YMCA in Brown Deer. When he returned home, he continued that work at the Feith Family Ozaukee YMCA in Saukville.
It was then, in 2004, that he met Gilane, an ACSM certified personal trainer who has worked with him ever since.
“I walked laps and laps and laps in the pool,” Marschke said, working to improve his mobility, strength and balance. “I eventually was able to walk by myself.”
Then he practiced falling and getting up, and eventually walking with a walker. And now, he can walk with a cane and drive again.
It’s been a long journey, Gilane said.
“We always said this is not a sprint. It’s a marathon,” she said. “I am blessed to be part of Mike’s journey.”
Marschke has remained positive and never gave up.
“A lot of people in that position would give up, just say ‘I’m done,’” Gilane said. “Basically, Mike is a walking miracle. People just don’t survive brain cancer. He has so much courage. He’s so hard working.
“He has inspired so many people. They say, ‘If he can do that, I can do this.’”
His favorite saying, she said, is “Pain is mind over matter. I have no mind, so it doesn’t matter.”
“He’s always kept his sense of humor,” Gilane said.
For his part, Marschke credited Gilane with much of his improvement.
“God works miracles,” he said. “God gave me Lisa. We’ve been through a lot.
“She has always been upbeat, even when I was down and out. She spurred me on, encouraged me not to quit. I owe her a lot.”
He also credits Mequon acupuncturist Jori Azinger, who has treated him.
For the past 11 years, Marschke has been a devoted client who seldom missed a workout session at the YMCA, Gilane said, noting they have worked together two to three times a week for the past 11 years, through bouts of radiation and chemotherapy.
Marschke is dedicated to his workouts, Gilane said.
“He always goes the extra mile,” she said. “If he’s supposed to do 12 reps, he’ll try to do 15.
“I never saw Mike as not being able to do something. I would think, ‘How can we modify this so Mike can do this?’ And he never said no. He always said, ‘I’ll try.’”
Marschke said the YMCA has played a major role in his recovery — both because it’s where he met Gilane and regained so much mobility, but also because he’s made so many friends.
“The Y has become like a family to me,” he said.
That is evidenced by the role fellow YMCA members have played in his recovery.
For example, fellow members Jim Horstman and Ted Warwick drove with Marschke to Plover to pick up his new car, a Chevrolet HHR.
Horstman also accompanied Marschke when he got the car modified to make it easier for him to drive.
When he first met Marschke about 10 years ago, he was a different person, Horstman said.
“He would sit with his wheelchair to the wall and dark glasses on. When he was stressed, he could barely talk,” Horstman said. “He was intimidating. Most of us don’t know how to address someone like that.
“His personality has developed. Now he’s not hanging back. He has friends,” he said. “Mike is a bright guy who just doesn’t quit.”
Horstman became an advocate for Marschke when his ability to continue workouts at the YMCA was threatened by the agency tasked with helping him remain independent, and has since become a friend.
“I’ve told him a number of times, ‘You’re a role model. You’re inspiring people.’”
Marschke said he is grateful for the support he has received from the YMCA, his family and friends.
“I am fortunate enough to survive, not just once but twice, brain cancer,” he said. “I was not given the best odds of survival by my doctors in the first surgery, by a specialist in Beverly Hills.”
Being able to drive has been liberating “to say the least,” Marschke said, but now he has new goals.
“I would like to set the world speed record in a wheelchair at the Bonneville Salt Flats,” he said.
Marschke also wants to design products for people in wheelchairs. He’s already designed a trailer hitch that allows him to hook a wagon to his wheelchair, enabling him to shop and haul things on his own.
“I have a lot of mechanical abilities,” Marschke said.
Image information: It has taken 11 years of hard work for Mike Marschke to achieve his goal of driving again — a goal he reached with the help of trainer Lisa Gilane. Photo by Sam Arendt