In August, just two months after a stem-cell transplant to help treat a form of cancer called multiple myeloma – and after putting in a week’s work at his University of Alabama office – Bill Battle was with his wife, Mary, in Wyoming, enjoying the cooler temperatures and gorgeous scenery of Jackson Hole. And then Battle went walking.
“We were staying outside of town at a place in the Elk Preserve,” Battle said in an interview with The Tuscaloosa News this week. “I was walking every day. Finally, I decided I would just walk all the way to the paved road and into town, which was four miles away and then four miles back. So an eight-mike walk.
“One day I was walking and the phone rang and it was (SEC Commissioner) Greg Sankey. He asked where I was and I told him and he asked what I was doing and I told him I was walking eight miles. He said, ‘I hope you’re not by yourself.’ I told him, ‘Greg, I’m on a road. If I pass out, somebody will be along eventually and pick me up.’”
Mary Battle recalled, “Bill walked so much that it wore out our dog, Jake. I’d tell him, ‘Bill, Jake can’t walk that much, he’s old.’ And Bill said, ‘I’m old, too.’ But he finally just left Jake at the house and he’d go. I’d ask our neighbor if he’s seen Bill and he’d say, ‘Yes, he’s out walking. Reminds me of Forrest Gump.'”
In the days since that trip, Battle, Alabama’s athletics director has continued his remarkable recovery from the stem-cell transplant. There has been no recurrence of the myeloma, although Battle still has monthly blood checks and has had a 100-day follow-up with a clean bill of health.
“I feel great,” Battle said. “I’ve felt great the whole time. I came through the transplant much more easily than I expected.
“I did get weak when they took my white cell count down to zero. But it came back quickly. I was in the hospital at Emory (home of the Winship Cancer Center in Atlanta) for two weeks, because they make you stay. Then I went and stayed with Mike (Battle’s son, who lives near Atlanta) for about 10 days or so. I’d walk around the neighborhood early in the morning or late in the evening, even when it was brutally hot. Then I came home and worked for a week and then we went to Jackson Hole.
“I came back full-time on August 15,” Battle added. “I felt good. People were saying, ‘Why don’t you work a half-day?’ and I would say, ‘What am I going to do at home for half the day?’ I felt good, there was work to do.
“I also wanted people to understand that everything was going well I was coming back. Mal (Moore, Battle’s predecessor as AD, who passed away from respiratory disease in 2012) went away and he didn’t come back, and I didn’t want people to worry that that was going to happen again.”
Battle said the three months since his return have gone smoothly.
“Being undefeated (in football) helps,” he joked. “But seriously, I have had so much support here at work and especially at home. Mary played an incredible role, not just because she was an oncology nurse and understood so much about cancer and cancer treatment. The health care system in this country is pretty complex and she spent a great deal of time dealing with it, talking to doctors, hospitals and insurance companies. It’s tough and she did all that I was working on recovery.”
Battle said that he and his wife are sharing his story to make others aware of the importance of early awareness.
“Early detection is so important,” Battle said. “We found (the myeloma) and started to deal with it as part of a routine physical. That allowed us to treat it aggressively as pre-cancer. Then when the spots appeared, we treated it with chemo. We were in front with all the medicine and treatments.
“Dr. (David Hinton) at the Manderson Center at DCH has been great to work with. All the doctors have been and Mary stays in communication with all of them.
“This isn’t like surgery. If you are having a knee operation, you want the best like a Lyle Cain right there. But this is all done with IVs. The doctor can be in Timbuktu. But they have to understand the treatment, and be able to explain it, and they have just been wonderful.
“Nothing has been a problem. The only thing I have had to deal with has been that my immune system was like a newborn baby’s after the stem-cell transplant. So they told me not to do anything that you would not take a baby to do. They talked about masks, but I wouldn’t wear a mask. For the first few weeks I wasn’t supposed to shake hands or hug anyone, but when I got back to work and visited with the gymnastics team – well, you’re going to get hugged.
“I wasn’t supposed to fly on a commercial plane, so for the first couple of road games I flew on private jets. But right before the Tennessee game, my 100-day checkup was clear so I have been back on the team plane since then.”
“He’s just doing amazingly well,” Mary Battle added. “Speaking from an oncology nurse perspective, I just haven’t seen some of the problems you can see with recovering patients. That’s probably because the drugs have gotten so much better, because the doctors are outstanding and because Bill was in such good health. That’s so important, being a healthy person.”
If there is a single signal that Battle is doing well, it’s visible to everyone.
“Even his hair grew back,” Mary Battle said when talking about her husband’s signature head of silver hair. “It looks hip now. I told him he should leave it the way it looks because it makes him look young.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.