Raifie Bass " Aspen’s miracle man
ASPEN ” Raifie Bass rode his bike 40 miles from Aspen to Glenwood Springs on a recent Sunday. That wouldn’t be such a big deal, except he shouldn’t be alive at all, let alone pedaling a bicycle through the Rocky Mountains.
Three years ago this week, doctors at a hospital in Los Angeles advised his wife, Michele Nelson Bass, to say her good-byes. It would take a miracle, they said, for him to survive the pulmonary fibrosis that had fried the lungs of the once incredibly fit 37-year-old.
Michele crawled into the hospital bed with Raifie, who was unconscious, bloated from steroids and breathing with the aid of a ventilator. Michele said her good-byes, then turned to the heart-breaking task of telling their then 4-year-old son Max that his daddy would probably die.
“Did I ever give up? No, but I was pretty close,” Michele said, recalling those days in 2005. “I was on the fine line between absolute, utter despair and hope.”
To say that Raifie beat the odds would vastly understate his achievement. No gambler, no matter how brazen, would touch the odds he was given. But somehow Raifie survived. His doctors called it nothing short of a medical miracle, according to the Basses and other sources who talked directly to the medical professionals.
Bass, an Aspen real estate agent, is a cycling and snowboarding fanatic. He and Michelle married in 1999 and had two kids: Max, now 7, and Andy, 3 1/2. Their life in Aspen was idyllic.
But life took a major turn for the worse in January 2005 when Raifie was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His Colorado doctor started a chemotherapy regimen that included a drug called bleomycin. Bass went through 11 of a scheduled 12 rounds of treatment, although he and Michele suspected he was suffering from bleomycin toxicity. The Basses said the oncologist continued the treatments despite Raifie’s shortness of breath and coughing bouts. Michele, an attorney, said the doctor told her to stick to law and let him worry about the medicine.
Raifie’s worsening condition forced him first into the emergency room at Aspen Valley Hospital on July 2, 2005, and then to seek treatment at the University of California at Los Angeles.
Doctors at UCLA said there was nothing they could do. Raifie’s condition was so poor by that time that they couldn’t do anything. Michele took notes at a July 22 meeting with a lung specialist and the rabbi at the UCLA Medical Center. “His lungs are stiff and air is being forced out of the alveoli into his chest and face,” said her notes of the doctor’s explanation. Raifie had gotten worse even during his short stay at that facility. “The actual tissue of his lungs looks worse,” Michelle was told.
The doctor concluded that the bleomycin toxicity had resulted in pulmonary fibrosis, an often irreversible and untreatable scarring of the lung tissue. They didn’t expect him to live. “We are talking miracles now,” Michelle was told.
She signed a “do not resuscitate” form so that Raifie wouldn’t be kept alive by artificial means if all hope was lost. She shared the devastating news with family and friends.
Rick Schultz, a friend of Raifie’s since they met in college in 1986 and who moved to Aspen with him in 1991, was one of several friends, mostly Aspenites, who ventured to L.A. to say their good-byes. About 25 people gathered at the hospital and Schultz said he kept hundreds more Aspenites updated via daily e-mails.
Schultz confirmed Michele’s story that doctors were telling the assembled crew there was “zero percent chance” for recovery. “They said his lungs were basically potato chips,” Schultz recalled.
Death was expected any day. A handful of friends stayed with Raifie around the clock so he wouldn’t die alone. But Raifie didn’t die within a couple of days as expected; instead he lasted five, six and then seven days, and then two weeks. His condition actually improved, at least to the point where death wasn’t knocking on the door.
The doctors were awestruck, and the Basses are at a loss to explain it. They credit the outpouring of love and support Raifie received, from friends and even from people who didn’t know him. Raifie said he somehow ended up on the prayer lists at two convents, even though he is Jewish.
Michelle said Raifie know so many people in the upper Roaring Fork Valley that friends call him the unofficial mayor of Aspen. He can’t walk out on the pedestrian mall for a couple of minutes without stopping to talk to 10 or 15 people, she said.
Schultz said Raifie has the biggest Rolodex of contacts he has ever seen, and has always taken pleasure in calling friends and acquaintances just to check up on them. If ever the cliche about a “people person” applied, it’s with Raifie. Perhaps, as Paul McCartney sang with the Beatles, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Raifie believes he could sense the people in his hospital room providing comfort during his drug-induced coma. He wanted to respond, but couldn’t. It’s hard to explain, he said, but he also believes he had an out-of-body experience, looked at his plight and “realized I wasn’t going to sit there and take it.”
Survival might also be in his genes.
“I knew his grandmother and she was tough as nails,” Schultz said. “There may be something in the fortitude of the Basses.”
Bass spent 37 days in intensive care, including 21 days on a ventilator, but progress was steady.
“The ideal lifestyle might have been wiped out, but at least he was alive,” Michele said. “We really, really feel like we won the lottery.”
Expectations were tempered, however. Doctors told the Bass family and friends that Raifie would likely have to live at sea level and rely on a wheelchair and oxygen tank. But Raifie had other plans.
He transferred to a hospital at the University of Southern California on Aug. 17, 2005, for more intensive physical therapy. The guy who once raced up the to Maroon Bells on his bicycle during lunch breaks on weekdays was reduced to shuffling along a hospital corridor with a walker to rebuild his strength. He recalled being unable to keep up with an elderly woman who had received a heart transplant. He joked with Michele that he might have to hip-check the old gal into the wall to stay ahead of her the next day.
By October, he was continuing rehab as an outpatient. An e-mail from Raifie to Michele during that time oozed with love and determination.
“I count the days until we are reunited as a family,” he wrote in late October 2005. “I think of you guys all day. The love that we have as a family carries me through the daily struggles. We will have our life back, and it will be better than ever.”
His day revolved around exercise, rest and recharging on oxygen, then more exercise. He also was regaining the 30 pounds of weight he lost in the hospital. “I had to rebuild my entire body,” Raifie said.
In January 2006, he was able to return to Aspen. His recovery was derailed, temporarily, when the lymphoma returned in February 2007, something that happens in 15 percent of lymphoma cases, according to Bass. He took the news in stride.
“I felt at that point I was a cockroach and there was nothing worse they could do to me,” he said.
He endured chemotherapy again, without bleomycin, and had a stem-cell transplant. Now the cancer is in remission. When asked how he would describe his current condition, Bass replied, “Grateful. Is that a condition?”
His lung capacity is about 73 percent of an average 40-year-old male. His determination, however, is far above average. Bass’ challenge is that the oxygen level in his blood drops and he builds up lactic acid, which can result in sore muscles and cramping. He is trying to rebuild his lung capacity, one small percentage at a time. He rides his indoor trainer bike several times a week, and takes outdoor road-bike rides more and more often, with an ever-changing lineup of friends that he calls “the posse.” Michele is often part of that posse.
When asked what motivates him to ride, rather than taking a more relaxed approach, Bass answered, “I don’t like to think about limits.” He said he was inspired by cyclist Lance Armstrong and Aspen’s Chris Klug, world-class athletes who overcame cancer and a kidney transplant, respectively.
“Am I going to have 100 percent of my lungs back? No,” Bass said. “But I can max what I do have.”
Just the fact that he is living in Aspen, at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, is amazing. “Most people that went through acute respiratory distress syndrome are dead,” he said. And many of those who managed to survive are invalids living at sea level.
There is no smugness or sense of superiority in his voice. He remains awestruck over his recovery.
“It’s not lost on me when I walk down the mall that I can even walk,” he said.
Just as Armstrong inspired Bass after recovering from testicular cancer and winning seven Tour de France titles, Bass inspires people who know or hear his story. A doctor even told him recently, “You gave me faith in miracles.”
Bass said he has no problem talking about his experience with friends, or even friends of friends, who are diagnosed with cancer. He knows how they feel.
“When you go to the doctor and hear you have cancer, the first thing you think is ‘I’m going to die,'” he said. “I think I carry a message of hope.”
Even before he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Bass wanted to help with cancer research. He organized the “Ride for the Cure” in Aspen 10 years ago. It’s a local companion event to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation’s national “Run for the Cure.” Bass was inspired to organize the ride because he felt there were probably many people like him that wanted to raise funds for cancer research but weren’t runners. His stepmother, Michele Bodner, was the former president of the Aspen chapter of the Susan G. Komen Foundation and helped organize the ride.
In the first year, the Aspen Ride for the Cure attracted 125 riders and raised $6,000. It gained traction, however, and now raises $500,000 for cancer research annually. Bass has been the “honored survivor” of the ride the last two years. This year, when the ride is held Sept. 6, his goal is to ride the 64-mile option. In the past, Bass’ Ride for the Cure team was called “I’m Not Dead Yet.” Recently the name has changed to “I’m Really Not Dead Yet.”
Throughout this summer Bass has ridden routes such as Aspen to Two Creeks in Snowmass Village, and out to Woody Creek. A trip to Glenwood Springs on the Rio Grande Trail July 13 was his longest outing in the mountains. (He can ride longer distances at lower elevations.)
As thankful as he is to be back on a bike, it’s nothing compared to the time he spends with his family. He and his son Max were out in the backcountry one recent day enjoying a quiet moment when the 7-year-old grabbed his dad’s arm and said, “Daddy, I’m glad you’re not dead.”
Raifie’s glad too.
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