Tim Gavallas is a police officer, father of twins, husband, kayaker, ice-fisher, mountain climber, and multiple myeloma patient. At the Brian D. Novis Research Grant Awards reception, a night filled with hope held during the 2019 American Society of Hematology meeting, Tim shared how a myeloma diagnosis was not going to keep him from living his active life. In early 2020, Tim traveled to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. Read the transcript of his speech to see how this myeloma patient won't back down!
Thank you all for having me here with you tonight. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to tell you a little about my life, including the buildings I jump off of and the mountains I climb.
But for me, it starts at home, with my wife Heidi and my twin boys, Teige and Ty, who are now ten years-old. I met Heidi when I was 21. A group of ten mutual friends went to see the movie “Hackers” together, and there she was. For the record, I didn’t remember that the movie was “Hackers,” but Heidi does.
I have been pretty athletic my whole life, weight training, running, and eating healthy. In the summer of 2012, I had been a cop for eighteen years, and I felt like I was in the best shape of my life. I was running a lot of obstacle races that year and finishing in the top three percent.
But in a race that September, I took a hard fall and broke two ribs. About a month later I hurt my back lifting up the hard top for my Jeep.
I went for an annual physical that November and my doctor didn’t like my blood work: High calcium levels. I had also lost close to 25 pounds. Right after Christmas I caught a terrible cough, and my doctor sent me in for an MRI and a chest x-ray. I found out I had pneumonia. My doctor also sent me in for an appointment with a hematologist/oncologist.
That’s when I got the news: Multiple Myeloma.
My whole life changed in an instant. I’d never heard of myeloma. I was 38 years-old, my wife was 36, our boys had just turned four. My first thoughts were of my sons growing up without their father-- would they even remember me? And that I wouldn’t even have enough time at work to retire so my wife could at least be financially secure.
But these thoughts only lasted for a minute. Because I made a decision: I’m not going out like that. When I stepped into the elevator after receiving my diagnosis, I saw a flyer for a myeloma support group. Their next meeting was just a few days later. I went.
It was the Connecticut Multiple Myeloma Fighters Information Group, led by Robin and Michael Tuohy. I walked in there not knowing what to expect. I was a little scared.
But the meeting was very positive, and it put me more at ease. It was especially good to hear Michael Tuohy’s story, because he was close to my age when he was diagnosed.
It felt like a huge weight being lifted off of my chest. On that first day I made a lot of new friends, and to this day, I still attend most meetings.
The other thing that got started right away was my myeloma treatment. I think I started on meds the very next day after my diagnosis, and I remember just wanting to get started on that fight against myeloma.
Since, then, I have been on a variety of treatment regimens as my local hematologist/oncologist and my specialist at Dana Farber monitor my numbers. Throughout all of the options I’ve had available to me, I have been really lucky and grateful to remain very active.
I really enjoy doing almost anything outdoors. I love hiking, backpacking, kayaking, fishing, and ice fishing. I like taking my family camping-- it’s a great way to spend quality time together. I love playing soccer with my sons, and nerf guns, card games, and board games. I’m also the Den Leader for my sons’ Cub Scouts pack.
When I’m spending time with friends, in addition to all of those outdoor things, I’m always up for wings and beer, or a movie, or ballgames. Go Yankees! As I mentioned earlier, I’m a cop. More specifically, I am now a Lieutenant with the Watertown Police Department. I like working with people, and my favorite thing about my job is the variety: No two days are the same.
Law enforcement has long time relationship with the Special Olympics. I’ve participated in their Law Enforcement Torch Run, which is similar to the Olympic torch relay, almost every year of my career. My favorite thing about it is the joy it brings the athletes. You may run into them at the grocery store, and they all talk about the Torch Run.
For the Special Olympics, I’ve also participated twice in a fundraising event called “Over the Edge,” which I suppose is pretty much as it sounds: I repelled off the top of the Mohegan Sun Casino, 33 stories high. The first time, in 2015, was a little scary, but not as scary as I thought it would be.
The second time, in 2017, it was a lot of fun, and I took my time to enjoy it. You don’t get to repel off a building every day, so when you do get to, you need to take advantage of it.
I am able to take advantage of it because of the countless hours of research, doctors, nurses, and such a large and talented myeloma community.
My numbers started to come up in the fall of 2018, and this past March my doctor at Dana Farber raised the possibility of a stem cell transplant.
But I already had other plans that I felt would interfere-- this coming February, to travel to Tanzania, Africa in order to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had joined a team of 12 law enforcement officers doing it as a huge fundraiser for the Connecticut Special Olympics-- with plans to carry their flag all the way to the top. He and I talked through my plans, and found another option: Now I’m on Darzalex with Velcade and Decadron. It’s been working great for me. The treatment is allowing me to train for and make that summit.
And it doesn’t impact my daily life too much either. The days I have my treatment, I imagine I’m a fighter walking into the ring to fight myeloma. I take the morning off for it, but then I go to work that same afternoon.
It’s a lot like what Resilience means to me: When you get knocked down, you get back up, always, no matter what. Resilience means looking at an enormous mountain and knowing that I can get to the top by taking it one step at a time, never giving up.
In addition to Mt. Kilimanjaro, this coming year I’m looking forward to completing 25 years in law enforcement. It’ll mean I’ll be able to retire if I need to, but I’m hoping to be able to do 10 more years.
This coming March, I’m also looking forward to seeing my sons cross over from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. They’re growing before my eyes and kicking butt in races, in soccer, and in life. My wife and I have now been together 24 years-- coming up on 19 years married next June.
Every day I wake up, I thank God for another day. I’m grateful that I’m still here to spend time with my family.
Myeloma has changed my life, but I continue to adapt and overcome, so that “Living Well with Myeloma” is just “Living Well.”
And that, to me, means time well spent. I make sure to spend time with my family, to make memories.
Time is one thing that you can’t get back. And I’m grateful to be spending this time with you here. Thank you.