Tina and Brian Dresser with their boys: 8-year-old Joey (front left) and 9-year-old Ben. Chris Aarhus/NDFU

 

 

After fighting stage 3 cancer and a rare disease within two years, the Dresser family is thankful for normalcy and community

By Chris Aarhus, NDFU editor

Tina Dresser will never forget the day she arrived home after she had undergone her final surgery stemming from a two-year battle with stage 3 colon cancer.

March 30, 2023, should have been a day in which the family from south of Center, N.D., collectively took a sigh of relief.

“I was feeling good, and I was ready to get back to normal,” Tina said.

Instead, the family was blindsided. As Tina was unpacking her clothes, husband Brian received a call to pick up their 7-year-old son Joey from school.

“He was in the office, and his face was droopy,” Brian recalled. “I know the signs of a stroke, so I knew right there I needed to get him to an emergency room.”

It’s been nearly a year since Joey was diagnosed with Moyamoya disease, which is “an extremely rare condition in which the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain become narrowed,” according to Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH). It’s a disease that Joey will live with the rest of his life and could leave him susceptible to strokes.

The past year has been a rollercoaster of emotions for the Dresser family of four — Brian, Tina, Ben and Joey. They have received a tremendous outpouring of support from their community including help with their cow-calf operation.

HER BATTLE

For Tina, stomach pains started shortly after her mother died. Tina didn’t think twice about it.

“It had to be stress from losing a family member — you just assume that’s what it is,” she said. “I didn’t think much of it. We had a lot of other things going on and two young boys to take care of.”

The pain became severe enough that Tina drove to urgent care in August 2022. She was referred to a gastrointestinal doctor, who ran tests and suspected she had colon cancer. Three days later, a colonoscopy confirmed it was stage 3.

Tina went through eight rounds of chemotherapy, five days of radiation therapy and surgery at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She had her final surgery and flew home on March 30, 2023. Brian picked her up and the couple peacefully went home.

“We were getting ready to celebrate and take a big sigh of relief,” Tina said. “I’m done with chemo and radiation, and I’m feeling good.”

HIS BATTLE

As Brian went back to work in his home office and Tina started unpacking her clothes, the school called and needed someone to pick Joey up.

“I grabbed Joey, and we jumped in the vehicle,” Brian said. “I called Tina and told her that there’s something majorly wrong.”

Brian knew the signs. Before he died, his father had previously had a stroke.

“They took (Joey) back and ran a test and confirmed it was a stroke,” Brian said.

Joey was immediately airlifted to Fargo, where a doctor looked at Joey’s CT scans and recognized it as Moyamoya disease.

“Joey was the third patient he had seen with this in Fargo,” Brian said.

Moyamoya disease occurs in fewer than 1 in 100,000 people, according to Boston Children’s Hospital. With the supply of blood being limited to the brain because of narrowed vessels, the brain grows temporary blood vessels called collaterals. This provides short-term relief, but collaterals eventually stop working.

The name Moyamoya is Japanese and means “puff of smoke,” referring to the “wispy, smoke-like appearance” of the collaterals on an x-ray. Females and people of Asian ethnicity are at a higher risk of the disease. Tina is of Asian descent.

A day after the diagnosis, Joey went into surgery to open up the left side of his brain.

“They did kind of like a bypass,” Brian said. “The surgery went well. He did have some aftereffects, but we were able to get him into physical therapy right away to work on his speech and occupation. They did tell us that we would have to do surgery at a later date on the right side. We planned on having it done six weeks later.”

Two weeks later while at home, Joey told his parents he felt a tingling sensation down one side of his body. He’d had a mini-stroke, and he was airlifted to Fargo again.

“You don’t know if this entire thing is happening again, because his symptoms were not as severe,” Tina said. “But he tells you he’s having this tingling feeling and that he feels weird. Your senses kind of go off. It’s pretty scary. Is it happening all over again?”

At that point, the Dressers were still educating themselves on Moyamoya and learning about their long-term options.

“This whole time, we’re trying to get up to speed on what Moyamoya is and trying to reach out and find out who the professionals are and what are some of the recommendations,” Brian said. “In that, we found out that Boston Children’s Hospital (BCH) is a leading hospital on this and that they do 50 of these surgeries a year, so they’re on the leading edge with this.”

The Dressers had a virtual consultation with BCH and elected to fly to Boston to continue Joey’s treatment. Three days later, Joey had a second surgery.

The family headed home after the surgery, and follow-up scans were done at Sanford Hospital in Bismarck, with the results being sent to Boston.

Last October, a scan showed an area of concern, so the family flew to Boston in January, and Joey had another operation. Shortly after the surgery, he suffered another stroke, though it did not require an additional surgery.

“They wanted stable images on consecutive days to make sure that the stroke wouldn’t continue,” Tina said. “Once we got those and he was doing OK, we stayed a couple of extra days outside of the hospital setting. Then we flew home.”

Going forward, the family is optimistic.

Tina’s scans have been clear to this point, and she’ll have her one-year colonoscopy in March.

For Joey, however, the family will always need to have a watchful eye in case of a stroke. Tina said mini-strokes could happen in which he’ll need aspirin and to lay down for an hour while they observe him.

“That should help his blood flow,” Tina said. “If it doesn’t resolve in an hour, then it’s to the ER. … This will be for the rest of his life. So, it’s really important as he goes away from us (when he’s older) that he’s cognitive of it and pays attention to it.”

THEIR COMMUNITY

Between the time spent away from home and trying to manage responsibilities with work and farm life, it’s been anything but normal for the Dressers.

However, they’ve received help with their cattle and medical bills from their community.

Brian’s family has been in the area for more than 100 years. The Dressers took over the family ranch in 2012, a decision they made together even though Tina grew up in the Twin Cities and didn’t have much farm experience.

“My mom came from a small dairy farm and my dad grew up in South Dakota, so that was kind of my snippet of the country,” said Tina, who played soccer at the University of North Dakota. “So we saw a little bit of that life through my mom and dad’s (family).”

Brian and Tina both had flexible full-time jobs that allowed them to essentially work from anywhere, which they still have. They chose to return to the countryside over buying a home in Bismarck.

“At first, I was kind of wondering what I was getting myself into,” Tina said. “But now, I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else. I can’t imagine raising my boys anywhere else.”

Said Brian: “This wasn’t the plan. The plan was to stay out here until the (housing) market changed. Now, (moving to the city) is not even an option we would consider.”

The return to the countryside has meant a lot to the Dressers. Brian remembers the very first drive to the emergency room with Joey. His brother had gone to pick up Tina — who couldn’t drive after her own surgery — and was going to meet them in Bismarck.

Brian didn’t know what would happen as he took his son to Bismarck, so he made one phone call to make sure his cattle were taken care of.

“I called my neighbor Dave and told him what was going on, and he said, ‘I got it. We’ll take care of it,’” Brian said. “I did not have to worry.”

Dave Berger’s family has been friends and neighbors with the Dressers for years — Brian graduated with one of Dave’s sons. He said the Dressers make it easy.

“They are such good people,” Berger said. “They treat everybody else with respect. Why wouldn’t you help them?”

Brian recalled a particular instance in which there was a bad cold snap, and the family was gone. Dave was one of a few neighbors that came to the rescue of the family’s cattle herd.

“My water had froze up — they fought to get it unthawed,” Brian said. “They battled through it and got everything flowing. It was amazing.”

It was a memory that made Dave smile.

“We were even getting worried on the second day that we wouldn’t be able to get this (water) open,” he said. “We just kept trying things until it worked. And then we went over there every day to check the water and check the cattle. But it was cold, so I think every rancher probably had problems.”

The community of Center also put together a fundraiser for the Dressers to help alleviate some of the financial burdens.

“They did a feed and a silent auction — it was unbelievable how much money they raised,” he said. “It was amazing. And we’re one of the smallest counties in the state.”

Being dealt a difficult hand the past two years hasn’t dimmed the family’s outlook on life. Quite the opposite.

“There are lot of negative things about our story the past two years, but it definitely gets outweighed by the positives,” Brian said. “We’re truly blessed. We’re through the storm and on our way back.”

The Dressers are thankful for a community that has embraced them.

“Some people think we’re crazy for living out here, and I think some of them have a hard time understanding it because of how far we are from things,” Brian said. “There are so many life lessons that can be learned out here. That’s something I really want to pass on.”

Tina added: “It’s incredible. I appreciate everything about it.”