Dad’s illness led man to help Wichita cancer patients

Daniel Fowler is the coordinator of Via Christi’s Cancer Wellness Program, which aims to keep patients active during treatment and recovery. He uses resistance bands for strength with patients such as Beckie Helm. (Aug. 28, 2014.)
Daniel Fowler is the coordinator of Via Christi’s Cancer Wellness Program, which aims to keep patients active during treatment and recovery. He uses resistance bands for strength with patients such as Beckie Helm. (Aug. 28, 2014.) The Wichita Eagle

Daniel Fowler – the image of a fit person – thought he would teach and coach when he got out of college.

His career plans took a different path when his father, Ken, became sick with kidney cancer in July 2012.

Fowler had earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education and health sciences and had been working on a master’s degree in exercise science at Oklahoma State University. His research interest turned to how exercise can benefit people diagnosed with cancer.

“I just wanted to help my dad,” he said.

He developed a program to help keep his dad, who had been active his whole life, up and out of bed as much as possible.

“In a way, he was like my first patient,” said Fowler, 25.

Fowler heads Via Christi’s Cancer Wellness Program. He helps patients maintain their strength while they are in the hospital receiving chemotherapy or radiation or battling a health complication.

His father, an employee of Kansas Gas Service, would work a long day and come home and mow or tinker with a project. He never missed work, so when he came home early one day and stayed home the next day, his family knew something was wrong.

Doctors told him he was dehydrated. He’d get better and then get sick again. A full-body CT scan after a couple of weeks confirmed he had cancer.

“It was very aggressive,” Fowler said.

Fowler transferred to Wichita State University to be closer to home and finished his degree in May 2013.

His dad died on June 9, 2013, at age 56.

Fowler always thought he would work with athletes. But because of his father, he spends his workdays helping cancer patients get up and moving.

Too much time in a hospital bed, he said, weakens people physically and dampens their spirits. No matter whether someone has little time left or years ahead of them, Fowler said, it’s important for cancer patients to stay active.

He took walks with his father, much like he does now with patients. He had his dad do chair squats and use a resistance band to mimic basic movements.

Fowler had worked at Genesis Health Clubs and over time developed his own program of exercise, rehabilitation and nutritional advice for people with health problems.

Before his father died, Fowler signed up to go to the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute at the University of Northern Colorado to earn a certificate as a cancer exercise specialist.

After his father died, “I had no desire to even go,” Fowler said.

“My mom told me she felt like I needed to go,” he said. “She claims that God talks to her through angels in her dreams and that I should go.”

‘Help as many people as I could’

Research shows that exercise among cancer patients helps improve energy, manage stress, improve tolerance to chemo and decrease the risk of infection and other problems.

After attending the institute, Fowler said, “I wanted to help as many people as I could.”

At first, he thought he would offer his program online so patients could do it on their own. Then he started sharing his ideas with hospitals.

Fowler, a board-certified exercise physiologist, began working at the Cancer Institute at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis in January and started seeing patients in February. Three exercise specialists work with him.

Wesley Medical Center doesn’t have a specific wellness program but does offer physical and occupational therapy to cancer patients who are post-treatment.

“Patients who don’t need physical therapy or occupational therapy a lot of times will just lay in bed,” Fowler said.

Their bodies lose conditioning.

“It becomes a feat just to go to the bathroom,” Fowler said.

He and his co-workers in the program try to see patients within 72 hours of being admitted to give them the best chance at maintaining their strength and endurance.

“Our goal is to decrease the overall length of stay in the hospital,” he said. “We want them to go home. If they walked in here, let’s let them walk out of here.”

Cassie Dauber, a registered nurse at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, said “as a nurse, you know you need to get your patients up and moving. Having Daniel come in, he really can work one-on-one with the patients and develop a program that works really well for them.

“If we can catch them up front, we’re not fighting an uphill battle.”

‘Like a big brother’

One of Fowler’s patients is Lorenzo Caw, 18, who was diagnosed on Oct. 15 with a rare bone cancer.

Caw had been struggling with knee pain.

“I went to the doctor twice, and they thought it was an injury from playing basketball,” Caw said.

An MRI, however, showed a mass in his leg. A Kansas City-area orthopedic surgeon recommended amputation. His family got a second opinion from a Denver physician who thought the leg could be saved.

Caw, who was in high school when he was diagnosed, recently finished chemotherapy.

His mother, Jannifer Caw, said her son got started with the wellness program right away. She thinks the fact that he and Fowler were both athletes and close in age helped.

“I can honestly tell you as a mother Daniel was instrumental in getting my son through this whole process,” she said. “He kept him active and encouraged him and was almost like a big brother.”

Fowler got members of the Wichita Wild indoor football team and University of Kansas basketball star Perry Ellis to come to Caw’s high school graduation party.

Caw started treatment with a walker and then moved to a cane.

“Now he’s able to walk without any help,” his mother said.

Beckie Helm, 60, just got the all-clear for her non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She did chemo every other week and knew it was important to get up and moving to flush it out of her system.

“The more that you’re on your feet, the more that you’re getting it out of your system,” she said. “You don’t want to lay around.”

Quality of life

Not everyone is eager to get on board. Fowler said he hears “no” from some patients at first.

“I think if I accepted ‘no,’ I’d be doing them a disservice,” Fowler said. “Usually by day two or three, they’re up walking with me.”

He doesn’t use the word “exercise,” he said.

“I’ll say, ‘We’re here to do some activity today,’ ” he said. “Their quality of life is what I focus on the most. I think they come in here helpless. They feel helpless. They’re very distressed and nervous.”

But exercise and nutrition can help make treatment more manageable, he said, and “those are things patients have control of.”

Fowler and his co-workers do an initial assessment to see how far a patient can walk and such. It’s a great feeling when he shows patients’ charts to them upon dismissal and they see how far they’ve come, he said.

Soon, Fowler hopes to offer the program to outpatients at the Via Christi Cancer Center at Murdock and Emporia.

His work can be emotionally difficult from time to time because of his father’s death. Someone may have the same type of cancer or sound like his father.

“It’s amazing most days,” he said.

“I want them to know what they have control over,” Fowler said of patients. “I feel driven to help them whether they have two months of living left or 20 years left.”

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

Outpatient plans

Via Christi plans to develop an outpatient Cancer Wellness Program at the Via Christi Cancer Center. The center is raising money for equipment, furnishings and need-based patient financial assistance. More information is available by contacting Monica Coen, senior director of development, at 316-239-3521 or monica.coen@viachristi.org.