A ‘grand awakening’ for Aspen resident Keith Bulicz
Before Keith Bulicz sat down to tell his story last week, he made his intentions clear.
“The only reason I’m doing this is to raise awareness about cancer and mental health,” he said.
As the recreation supervisor for Aspen Parks and Recreation, Bulicz, 42, is a ubiquitous figure about town. He can be seen running the show at children’s T-ball and soccer games and other youth sports or at adult softball games as the go-to man. He also is the founder of the Aspen Mac & Cheese Festival held downtown in the fall.
Standing 6 feet, 4 inches and an athlete most of his life, he played center for Vanderbilt University’s football team before transferring to the University of Delaware, where he played his final two seasons, lettering in 1994.
His nickname, fittingly, is “The Big Cheese.”
But behind his soft-spoken, easygoing and sociable demeanor, Bulicz this year had to endure both physical and mental plights not readily noticeable to the casual observer.
A quote from Ian Maclaren, the Scottish author and theologian from the 19th and 20th centuries, readily applied to Bulicz: “Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle.”
“I was carrying around myself as most people saw me, as a stand-up guy in the community and an athletic person,” Bulicz said.
But for a man who skied most of his life, dove off 100-foot cliffs and moved to Aspen in June 1997 to be a hiking and Jeep guide, his adventurous lifestyle was going awry. Acrophobia and anxiety were taking over his life, the genesis of his battles nearly a decade ago.
“I couldn’t even climb up Little Cloud Trail,” he said. “I’d go on the gondola and close my eyes from the bottom to the top just so I could go skiing.”
When Bulicz did ski, he was plagued by trepidation.
“I was afraid of the mountain crumbing underneath me or skiing off a cliff,” he said. “With all of this stuff in my mind, I was barely living. I was trying to get to tomorrow or the next year. I couldn’t handle living in the moment today, with all of these episodes I was having.”
Perhaps the causes were the dozens of concussions he suffered from playing football and competitive wrestling. Or maybe he had vertigo, he thought.
Bulicz went to a neurologist last summer, and later visited an ear, nose and throat specialist, learning his ailment was beyond vertigo or acrophobia. He suffered from an anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder from a near plane crash while landing in Aspen on Nov. 30, 2007. His phobia of heights was exacerbated five summers ago while on a hut trip in the Hagerman Pass area. He was convinced he was going to fall of a cliff.
“It was like an anxiety attack,” he said. “I just felt like I was going to die.”
Making matters worse for Bulicz this year, his wife sought a divorce in February. That could have sent Bulicz into a further spiral. Instead, he said it provided the culprit for what he called a “grand awakening.” He underwent counseling and decided he would live in the now, consequences be damned.
“I just realized I would rather ski and crash into a rock and die, but at least for five seconds I was truly alive, with all capital letters,” he said. “From that moment, I can’t say I was cured, but I was able to suppress the phobia of heights and the (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
He started to renew his affair with the outdoors, hiking up Smuggler Mountain Road a few times and skiing double-black diamond runs at Aspen Highlands and Snowmass. Between March and April, he registered roughly two dozen ski days.
He was back, or so it seemed.
Then on May 26, while he was at work, Bulicz felt unbearable pain in his waist area.
“It was below the belly button, around the belt line,” he said. “I felt like I’d been kicked by a mule.”
The pain persisted into the next day, a Friday. He went to a doctor at 3 p.m. that day. That night, he was on the operating table for an appendectomy at Aspen Valley Hospital. Worse, a CAT-scan revealed a tumor on his kidney, which was confirmed by an MRI the next week.
Physicians told Bulicz the tumor was dangerously close to an artery. If operators hit the artery during the biopsy to remove the tumor, Bulicz was told he would die within five minutes. Another option was to remove his left kidney.
Neither option suited Bulicz. A religious man, Bulicz asked for prayer circles at Crossroads Church. He reached out on Facebook for support. The church, social media and his time with Roaring Fork Leadership, he said, gave him the inspiration to forge ahead.
On June 29, Bulicz went to a Denver hospital for surgery. Simply put, doctors pushed his left kidney to the side and sewed it to his abdominal wall, surgically removing the tumor. The operation took three hours, he said.
“I feel blessed about it,” he said, noting that if he hadn’t had an appendectomy, the tumor, which turned out to be cancerous, might not have been detected for another decade.
Between the appendectomy and tumor removal, Bulicz shed about 30 pounds. After his last surgery he weighed 190 pounds, a mark he hadn’t seen since his freshman year in high school.
He has gained, however, a different view on life. Bulicz said he tries to take care of himself better through a healthier diet and an increasing exercise regiment. He is appreciative of the support he received — a GoFundMe campaign raised $5,000 for his medical bills. He credits Nic Nicholson, of TurnOnAspen.com, for coaching him in his transformation.
The city of Aspen gave him the time off he needed from work so he could recover. He was back in the office earlier this month. He went to see Pearl Jam play in Telluride in July, and he’s gearing up for the Aspen Mac & Cheese Festival set for Sept. 10. Bulicz said he hopes to have a mental-health booth with the help of Christina King of Aspen Strong, a nonprofit that focuses on mental health, at the festival. He also aims to have a cancer-awareness station at the festival.
Mental health is an undeniable problem in Aspen, he said, despite its jaw-dropping surroundings and thrill-seeking atmosphere.
“You would think it would be the opposite in this beautiful place we live,” he said. “To be here in paradise, it’s amazing to me there is a problem, but it’s a problem that can’t be ignored.”
Bulicz is now cancer-free. He said his mental demons are at bay, but he takes nothing for granted. Placing his focus on mind, body and spirit — also the Aspen Idea mantra espoused by Elizabeth and Walter Paepcke in the 1940s — keeps him centered, he said.
“Now that I’m coming back from these surgeries and able to get on track with this mind, body and spirit mentality, I’m not going to say I’m perfect,” he said. “But I’m better today than I was yesterday, and tomorrow I will be better than today. I’m back on track.”
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