Battle with mysterious illness teaches life lessons
By Elizabeth Chunn
When Dennis Sarine, the Amarillo College director of child development, felt ill last summer, he didn’t think it was anything serious. “It was a normal day in the sun, so I walked into BSA with what I thought was dehydration,” Sarine said. “I don’t remember much, but I went to the ER and they started giving me fluids.”
Sarine spent two weeks in the hospital while doctors ran tests and administered fluids. “The doctor came in and said my bloodwork was off, but nothing stood out on the CT scan,” Sarine said. “I was released and instructed to take it easy then follow up with my primary care physician.”
After being home for less than 24 hours, Sarine passed out in the hallway. When he came to, he called his wife. “We were getting back-to-school haircuts when he called me and said that he was in pain and couldn’t move,” Rachel, Sarine’s wife, said. “I called 911, and before I got home, the paramedics were already there loading him up into the ambulance.”
Despite medical testing, Sarine’s condition worsened, without a clear reason why. “They started monitoring things and giving me blood transfusions,” Sarine said. “I kept getting weaker and weaker and started turning really, really gray.”
Rachel said she felt frustrated and confused by the ambiguity of his condition. “I don’t think the doctors in Amarillo were aware of the weight of the situation either,” she said. “I told them that I understood if they weren’t able to figure it out, but they needed to send us to a place that could. It probably wasn’t my finest moment, but the mama bear in me came out.”
With the help of one of her co-workers, Rachel sent Sarine’s scans and test results to Baylor Scott & White, a teaching hospital in Dallas. “I then got a call from, I guess my hero, who asked me to come to Dallas for more tests,” Sarine said.
When reviewing the radiology scan, Sarine’s hero, a radiologist in Dallas, had discovered a rare occurrence. A shadowing around the pancreas revealed the growth of two leg-like formations. “He had a pancreatic divisum along with chronic pancreatitis,” Rachel said. “The doctor never came out and said the ‘C’ word, but he kept telling us this is serious and that the cells were rapidly growing.”
A professor at the hospital also told his students that the only previous patients he had seen with Sarine’s condition were already deceased. Somehow, Sarine continued to hang on, but his doctors said he was not healthy enough to undergo a potentially life-saving surgery. Instead, they advised him to continue treatment at home.
“Once we learned he wasn’t healthy enough for surgery, he had a PICC line inserted to provide nutrition
via an IV,” Rachel said. “It took a while to get used to having these tubes hanging from his body and learning how to prepare meals. Eventually, this became our new normal.”
By Thanksgiving, Sarine said his vitals were terrible. Although he was in pain and didn’t get out of bed for many days, Rachel said he still made every effort to attend his children’s sporting events. “I know it was difficult, but we weren’t sure of what the future looked like,” she said. “Dennis was going to make sure if things didn’t go according to plan, our children knew how much they were loved and how much Dennis loved watching them do what they love doing,” Rachel said.
As a last resort, Sarine and Rachel made the decision to go through with the risky surgery. “I started to grasp our current reality when we had to go up to my bank to get all of our wills and Powers-of-Attorney notarized,” Rachel said.
Back at Amarillo College, Sarine’s colleagues worked together to keep things operating smoothly. “I helped keep the department going,” Rochelle Fouts, the child development instructor, said. “I have respect for him and his leadership style, so I tried to accomplish his big ideas.”
The faculty and staff in the education department remained determined to keep the child care centers and the academic programs running as smoothly as possible until Sarine returned, according to Becky Easton, dean of liberal arts.
Finally, the day of the surgery arrived. Following the seven-hour operation, the doctor came out to talk to Rachel. “He looked relieved in a way and seemed to be at peace,” she said. The surgery had gone well.
A typical three-week recovery period was shortened to “as soon as you can tolerate soft food,” and Sarine began walking every chance he could. The doctor said he had never seen a patient with this condition recover so quickly, according to Sarine.
Sarine returned to work with new enthusiasm. “I like being around people and wanted to function in a new normal, new workload and new life,” he said.
Since his return in August, the education and child development office is “alive again in more ways than one,” Fouts said.
Easton agreed, saying, “Professor Sarine has more energy than two of most people, and he is focused on making people’s lives better through education. He understands that at the heart of everything we do, people matter,” Easton said.
Sarine said his goal is to create a “safe learning environment” for students; therefore, he hopes to share what he learned during his medical journey. Above all, he said he urges his students to get regular medical checkups even when they are not feeling ill.
“I am sitting here today because doctors were able to compare my 38-year-old physical to now,” Sarine said. “I realize men are often hesitant to get their physicals, but if you haven’t gotten one, you need to. They could save your life.”
Sarine emphasized that his health crisis has shifted his priorities. “Family first. I will never miss my children’s games or events,” Sarine said. “I will take the time to purposefully take them to lunch and have date nights with my wife. If my children like to have campouts in the backyard, we will have them every day if they want to.”
With a new understanding of how fleeting life can be, Sarine said he now chooses to celebrate life’s wins by creating memories with his children and appreciating the friends and family who supported him along the way.