His four-year battle with cancer having found yet another level of danger, Central High football coach Justin Garza has returned to Stanford University Medical Center, long his second residence.
The first is the Fowler home for his family of four.
But, today — which has become commonplace — wife Regina, 4-year-old son Joaquin and 8-month daughter Elena continue to make the traumatic transition from the slow-paced calm of a tiny Central Valley community to the heart of America’s tech mecca Bay Area.
“We’ve become experts at the (180-mile) drive,” Regina says.
They are joined by the former Reedley and Sunnyside football coach’s parents and in-laws in a dreadfully uncertain length of stay and prognosis for a 40-year-old deep into his third round of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the body’s ability to fight infections.
Regina knows this: “It’s a serious deal where Justin is at right now.”
This is why the Fowler graduate, 36, and Madera County attorney has taken a leave of absence: “In my mind, it’s the only choice. I’m where I need to be with him, and every day is a blessing.”
This also explains why both sets of parents are there — and, like her, face repeated challenges finding affordable lodging in an ultra-affluent region — to support their stricken loved one while also pulling shifts in helping care for Joaquin and Elena Josephine, who was named after her grandmothers.
Elena was delivered at Clovis Community Medical Center on Thanksgiving Day while Dad remained at one of the world’s most comprehensive cancer treatment hospitals after a bone-marrow transplant a month earlier.
This was a process, Mom says, that resulted in unsuccessful steroid treatments following complications: “It’s not like, ‘We found a (transplant) match and that’s it.’ It’s a long process, everybody’s journey is different and Justin continues to fight for his family.”
Extended issues today are resulting in “experimental drugs” in an attempt to reverse the crisis, she says.
Meanwhile, her husband communicates through her in room No. 138 at the hospital’s E1 bone and marrow transplant unit: “There is no way I could do this transplant without the sacrifices made from my family.”
Additionally, Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg explains, an enormous volume of sick leave has been donated from the district, allowing Garza to remain on paid leave.
We’re all behind him because he’s so tremendous with kids.
Central Unified Superintendent Mike Berg, among those who have donated leave to football coach Justin Garza as he battles cancer
Berg, in fact, donated two weeks: “A lot of people are saying, ‘This is a good guy fighting a good fight.’ We’re all behind him because he’s so tremendous with kids.”
To which Garza responds: “The amount of sick leave donated by my colleagues is evidence of the type of people I’ve been blessed to work along side each and every day.”
Berg says Garza remains on the books not only as a district employee and teacher, but head coach of football after assistants Myles Bacon, first, and Mark Hetherington, since, were named replacements after he coached his fifth and final game last season. He left in early October while being prepared for the transplant, which essentially attempts to restart one’s immune system against infection with another’s.
Only, today, the procedure has stalled as Garza’s organs — specifically, his gastrointestinal tract — try to adjust to his donor’s cells.
There’s a lot of medication and side effects, a lot of work for a body and a person’s spirits.
Regina Garza on husband Justin’s battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma
“It’s a difficult process,” his wife says. “A lot goes into this gig. I don’t know that you’ll find anybody, ever, who has gone through the process smooth, like butter, trying to replace one’s immune system with another’s. There’s a lot of medication and side effects, a lot of work for a body and a person’s spirits. They’re not able to do things we do on a daily basis — going to a restaurant, work, travel and vacation.”
Berg says, technically, Garza will remain the head coach of Central, which competes in the Central Section’s elite Tri-River Athletic Conference: “Justin’s still our guy and we’re rooting for him. It’s Justin’s job as long as he’s employed by the district. And he’s currently employed. He’s a fighter and we’re all behind him.”
It was at Stanford that Garza celebrated his 40th birthday and eight-year anniversary in late July.
And it is there that he, wife and family shield the children, specifically, a boy with emerging awareness in Joaquin.
“Kids are smart at 4 years old,” Mom says. “Joaquin knows his father is sick. We work with social workers here (at the hospital) to make sure we keep (informing) at his level. He doesn’t understand what cancer means, so we do our best to make it relatable, but not to make it relatable when he might get sick, that this is not happening to him. We do our best to make sure we protect him from hearing too much.
“The children are with us here, they love their dad and they’re resilient. And Justin’s a good coach, but he’s an unbelievably remarkable husband and father.”
Andy Boogaard: 559-441-6400, @beepreps