Reclaiming his life
Jarrod Lyle returns to action at this week's Web.com Tour event, more than two years after his second battle with cancer
July 22, 2014
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
Jarrod Lyle returns to action at this week's Web.com Tour event, more than two years after his second battle with cancer
Jarrod Lyle stretched out in a recliner in his hometown of Shepparton, Australia, in March of 2012. The only things missing were the pizza and beer. And his good health.
Instead of sitting comfortably in his living room, Lyle was in the delivery room at the local hospital with his wife, Briony, waiting for the birth of their first child while still processing the news from earlier in the week that his acute myeloid leukemia had returned.
As nurses timed Briony’s contractions, they were also monitoring Jarrod’s temperature. He was neutropenic, meaning he had no white blood cells to fight infection. Against the advice from his doctors, he had put off immediate treatment, even though ACL is an aggressive form of cancer. It was risky, but he wanted to be in the room.
Briony, meanwhile, hadn’t yet reached her due date. Having been unable to sleep for three days, she was exhausted and just wanted to rest. But she also wanted her husband to see the delivery, so she talked her doctors into inducing labor.
Briony was given an epidural. The emergency C-section was successful. Little Lusi Joy was healthy, and Jarrod was the one who cut the cord. Normally, nurses would then take the newborn to bathe and dress her. But they bent the rules for Jarrod. They understood this was no ordinary situation, so they let him handle those duties.
Jarrod was grateful for the moment, for being able to watch his daughter enter this world. Soon he would contemplate the possibility of his own death, but on this day, he needed to see life. Or as he said, “I needed to have something to hang onto.”
For a half-day, Jarrod, Briony and Lusi were together. Then Jarrod left for the Royal Melbourne Hospital two hours away, where he was given a private room. He would soon be alone in his bed, a catheter in his chest, a mixture of chemotherapy drugs coursing through his bloodstream, the battle against cancer once again engaged. The first time was at age 17. Now he was 30 with a wife and a child, as well as a golfing career that was on hold.
It would be nearly three weeks before he was reunited with Briony and Lusi. There were times when he wondered whether he would ever get out of that room in Melbourne. The nurses told him to be prepared to move if someone sicker, or someone who was about to die, needed the room.
He didn’t know quite what to think about that.
“Does that mean I’m going to take my last breath in here?” he wondered. “I had a couple of days like that where I just sat there and thought, ‘Right, that’s it. It’s the end of me.’ “
So he clung to the memories of those 12 hours with his expanded family. Those were some of the best hours of his life. He wanted more of them. He wanted to watch his daughter grow up. He wanted to grow old with his wife. He wanted to play golf with friends.
He got mad for thinking about death. You’re getting ahead of yourself, he thought. You’ve got stuff to do.
He was right. It was time to fight.
Jarrod and Briony were high school classmates in Shepparton, but just casual acquaintances, hardly close friends. Briony remembers when Lyle suffered from cancer the first time. They were both seniors. After Lyle was diagnosed, he was confined to his bed for nine months while undergoing chemotherapy treatments at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
Brionly had no idea how sick he’d been.
"He came back at the end of the year for our graduation ceremony and was bald and quite slim, and we all remembered that," she said. "I always just remembered seeing him get his certificate, his graduation, even though he didn't actually finish."
It took another year before Jarrod had the strength to walk around a golf course. But he returned to the game he loved and turned professional, eventually graduating from the Web.com Tour in 2006 and earning his PGA TOUR card.
The next year, he was playing in a golf tournament back in Melbourne. He missed the cut, giving him a free weekend. He went out with friends and had a little too much to drink.
Nursing a hangover, he decided to stop at a gas station in Shepparton to indulge his biggest addiction – Diet Cokes.
Briony was working the counter.
The two chatted about the old days and talked about maybe getting together over the upcoming holidays. When she returned home, Briony mentioned to her father that she had seen Jarrod, who had just been featured in an article in the local newspaper.
Her father asked mischievously, “Do you get his phone number?”
She didn’t … but she was intrigued.
"I actually went on Facebook and found him and sent him a message," Briony said. "I didn't ask to be his friend or anything because I didn't know if he was operating in other circles, and I sent him a message and said if you want to catch up while we're back home, here's my number.
“He called, and we did."
Four years later, the couple married.
During his lengthy stay at Royal Children’s Hospital in 1999, Lyle was befriended by Robert Allenby, who was 10 years older and just starting his full-time career on the PGA TOUR. Allenby has always been involved in the fight against cancer – he’s a spokesperson for the Challenge Cancer Support Network, and his Robert Allenby Golf Day has raised more than $9 million for children with cancer and blood disorders.
Kids with cancer tug at Allenby’s heart.
Once Jarrod’s condition improved, he played golf with Allenby, who was impressed by the teenager’s game. Allenby not only became his friend, but his mentor. A few years later, they became competitors on TOUR.
Prior to The Honda Classic in the first week of March in 2012, Allenby ran into Lyle in the locker room. Lyle looked sick. He was coming off a tie for 37th the week before at the Mayakoba Golf Classic.
“Are you OK?” Allenby asked.
“I don’t feel good at all,” Lyle replied. “I feel like I got bitten by some bug or a spider or something.”
Allenby, knowing Briony was soon to deliver, suggested that his friend head home early. Lyle was already planning to return to Australia after the Honda, so he kept his itinerary. He landed on a Tuesday in time to make his doctor’s appointment. It didn’t take long for the tests to confirm the horrible news. His cancer was back.
"Obviously it was just a massive shock," Allenby said. "As soon as I heard, I called him. I just said, 'Mate, we're all here for you. You know you can beat this again. You've done it once before and you can do it again. Just always remember everybody's over here to support you.’
"I also said that you've got so much to live for. You've got the birth of your new daughter coming. Just stay positive. Just be upbeat and be determined that you're going to beat it.”
Unlike Allenby, Briony didn’t know what to expect. She didn't know what Jarrod went through the first time he had chemotherapy. She hadn't seen him sick, frail, barely able to keep food down. She wanted to know what was about to happen. She wanted facts, details.
"Don't give me could be, maybe, might be, all that sort of stuff," Briony said.
The harsh fact was that she had a baby to take care of and a husband who was seriously ill two hours away in a hospital room in Melbourne. She had just come out of a pregnancy but she had to keep the family together, keep the morale high. It was not easy.
“He just became this sick little boy again,” Briony said of Jarrod, “and I didn't need a sick little boy right now. I needed my husband.
“I didn't literally slap him across the face, but it was just like, ‘You've got to snap out of that. I can't deal with that and with her at the same time.’ But I was scared for him because I was away from him.”
Briony wasn’t sure what was happening with her husband. She worried about negative vibes, that his family would relive the days of his childhood cancer that had been so horrible.
“I didn't want him to fall into that because I just thought, that's a dangerous cycle,” Briony said. “So I was scared for that more than anything, that he was not going to be encouraged to have the right frame of mind."
From her perspective, the right frame of mind was simple -- he needed to beat leukemia so that Lusi would get to know her dad.
One of the ways Jarrod stayed positive was to avoid the cruel statistics that come with cancer. He didn’t ask his doctors about success rates or percentages. Any numbers that did come his way, he treated them like weather forecasts.
Not always accurate.
“I watch the weather,” Jarrod explained. “It’s a 60 percent chance it’s going to rain, but it never rains. I didn’t want to know that stuff. I just wanted to go in there and fight the way I knew how to fight.”
The reality was that the percentages weren't great since this was Jarrod's second bout with leukemia. At the same time, though, 13 years had passed since his first diagnosis. Drugs were better. Treatments change.
The first round of chemotherapy didn't send the cancer into remission. But Briony wouldn't let Jarrod, who was in the hospital for the better part of five months, become discouraged. It wasn’t easy. Doctors could not find an adult bone marrow donor, not among Jarrod’s siblings nor anyone among the 7.5 million on the registry.
So doctors decided to try a double umbilical cord blood transplant, a viable option for patients who could not find a match. The blood, collected following the delivery of a baby, has a large number of blood-forming stem cells. But one umbilical cord isn’t enough for adults, so two are needed to facilitate the growth of new bone marrow.
One of the cords came from a baby in Germany. The other came from a little girl in the United States. Jarrod notes that he produces female chromosomes now but jokingly reminds his friends that he still goes to the bathroom standing up.
What’s no joke is that he essentially became a newborn the day of the transplant. At one point, the juxtaposition of his transplant versus his own daughter’s birthdate finally hit him.
“The weirdest thing,” he said, “is now my immune system and my factory inside is younger than my daughter's."
Once the transplant had taken place, the waiting game began. Jarrod’s life hinged on the procedure being a success. There was no shortage of well-wishers; Allenby kept texting every few days. “You doing all right?” he asked Lyle. “Am I annoying the (crap) out of you yet?”
Lyle’s replied that “it was all good.” But was it?
One day after returning home to Shepparton, Lyle developed a fever that wouldn’t go away. The couple dropped everything and headed back to the hospital in Melbourne.
On the drive there, Jarrod and Briony gingerly waded into the conversation both had been dreading but knew was necessary.
“You need to tell me what your wishes are if this doesn’t get better,” Briony told her husband. “If you’re not here tomorrow, we haven’t had this conversation, and I don’t know what you want me to do.”
She doesn’t remember the response. She just knows that she and Jarrod spent the rest of the drive crying. She wanted to stay strong, but in that moment, the gravity of the situation finally had become too much.
“We just didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “The doctors didn’t know what was happening and why he kept getting these fevers and whatever. It just felt a bit helpless.”
In the end, the news was good. Jarrod’s fever finally subsided.
In those early days and weeks when Jarrod started his treatment, back before the transplant procedure, Briony focused on finding blood donors and potential bone marrow donors. She texted friends. She did media interviews.
It was all-consuming, but Briony had a distraction if she needed it. She had a newborn. It wasn’t exactly the way she had dreamed of approaching motherhood.
“Someone would bring me this baby, and I'd be like, ‘Yeah, I'd better feed it,’ " Briony said. "OK, so she's fed.
“My whole life did not revolve around the newborn as it would for anyone else. So I missed that experience, as well."
Being a father was different for Jarrod, too.
After he returned home, there were times he couldn't hold Lusi because the drugs could come out in his sweat and harm the baby. He couldn't change diapers – “nappies” as he calls them -- because if he got her "poo" on him, diseases could spread and Lyle's immune system could be compromised.
OK, so maybe Jarrod didn’t mind that last restriction. Briony would ask the doctors during every check-up whether Jarrod could change the nappies. The doctors would then look at Jarrod, who jokingly replied with his “evil” face while shaking his head no.
The reports on Jarrod’s progress were encouraging during the next few months. In late spring of 2012, the cancer went into remission. His doctors have never used the word “cured” but the prognosis is good.
It reached the point that Briony finally stopped allowing her husband to play the sick-person card. “Bri,” said Jarrod, “doesn’t really stand for that. I’m glad she pulls me in line every day.”
And guess who changes the diapers now?
“I’m definitely caught up in the nappy changing race,” Jarrod said.
Until he pulled out of The Honda Classic, Jarrod was headed toward the best season of his golf career. In seven starts, he had made $363,684, thanks mostly to a tie for fourth at the Northern Trust Open. That was the 100th start of his PGA TOUR career – and his highest finish.
But golf had been pushed to the side for many months as Jarrod concentrated just on staying alive.
Finally, on a warm, sunny day in February of 2013, Jarrod was home with Lusi, who had just started to walk a couple of months earlier. Briony was at work. Jarrod scooped up his daughter, drove to the golf course near his home, put her in a golf cart and played nine holes.
He shot even par. He made seven pars, one birdie and a bogey.
Lusi had a great time, too, which made the day even better. On the par-5 third, Jarrod hit his third shot, then turned around to check on his daughter. She was not in the cart.
“I didn't know where she was, and then I look in the bunker about 10 yards away and there she was,” Lyle said, smiling. “She'd fallen down the face of the bunker and rolled down to the bottom and she was just sitting in the bottom with a huge grin on her face thinking it was the funniest thing ever.
"It was kind of a good return to golf."
The next time Jarrod played nine holes, he “shot about 45.” So he knew it wouldn't be easy to reclaim the form that landed him on TOUR.
"I was hitting the ball nowhere," he recalled. "There was no power to the swing. I had lost all my muscles, so I knew it was going to take a long time to get back to hitting the way I used to hit it."
The first time Jarrod walked 18 holes, his legs rebelled. He says it took four or five days before he felt normal again.
"When you're having your treatment, you don't feel like doing anything," he said. "So even walking to the toilet or walking to bed or walking to the kitchen to get a drink, it's an effort. To be able to walk 18 holes again, it took a long time.”
To resume his career, he would have to find the energy. That's why playing in the Talisker Australian Masters last November was such an important step. It was his first big test, and he was determined to finish each round, even if he had to crawl the last nine holes.
He had plenty of support in the gallery. Most of his friends wore yellow shirts with the words, “Jarrod Lyle’s Comeback Tour” on them. Unlike most tournaments, where the biggest fan support is on the weekend, Lyle’s followers came out in droves on Thursday and Friday. Privately, they didn’t expect their man to make the cut. Neither did Lyle.
But on his final hole Friday, Lyle was in position to reach the weekend. All he needed to do was two-putt from 10 feet. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t as easy as you might think.
"My caddie wanted me to hole the putt, and I said, ‘Look, mate, I don't want to stuff this up,’ " Jarrod recalled. "I'm just going to dribble this up there.”
It was only the 36th hole, but for Lyle, it might as well been the final hole on Sunday.
“For me,” he said, “it was winning the tournament.”
THE BIRTHDAY SUIT
For his "first" birthday party in his post-cancer life, Jarrod Lyle dressed up as Superman.
"It's kind of a funny thing that my wife and I have," he said. "We sort of make light of the situation."
Jarrod's new birth date -- June 8, 2012 -- is three months after his daughter Lusi was born.
"At some point," said Briony with a laugh, "she's going to enjoy the fact that she's older than dad."
(Photo courtesy of Briony Lyle)
After returning to their U.S. home in Orlando, Florida, Jarrod and Briony bought an RV so they could travel with the now 2-year-old Lusi. This week, they will drive to Overland Park, Kansas, for the Web.com Tour’s Midwest Classic.
When Jarrod tees off Thursday, it will be the first time in 879 days that he has struck a shot in competition as a TOUR member.
The Midwest Classic is the first of three Web.com events he’s scheduled for, and then he’ll also play the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in October. It will be his first TOUR event of the 2014-15 season, and he’ll be on a major medical exemption, with 20 events to earn $283,825. Coupled with his earnings of $363,685 two years ago, that would equal No. 125 from the 2012 money list. Once he reaches that total, Lyle will be fully exempt.
Jarrod is looking forward to getting back into a golf routine. Still, the expectations are low this week.
"I’ll probably spend more time saying thank you to people than actually practicing my golf,” Jarrod said. “But I need to really make a point of separating that time because I’m back working. I’m back playing golf. I’m back doing my job.”
There are plenty of people Lyle wants to see. Briony kept the TOUR updated on her husband's condition, and the information was passed along to the players. Quite a few reached out, guys like Scott Piercy and Rickie Fowler, and of course, all the Aussies on TOUR. Tripp Isenhour, a former TOUR player who now works for the Golf Channel, arranged for a special video to be made, as well.
Lyle jokingly calls Fowler his "little buddy." When Fowler made his pro debut in 2009 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Lyle was one of his playing partners for those first two rounds.
Fowler stayed in touch with Jarrod during his treatment. Briony remembers Fowler calling when Jarrod was coughing so badly he could hardly talk. Fowler, who still has a voice mail from Jarrod on his phone, even sent boxes of signed memorabilia so that Lyle could auction it off for charity.
"Knowing he had gone through that once before and having to see him have to go through it again (was hard)," Fowler said. "... I’d been in touch with him a little bit and knew that everything was going well and he was getting the news that he was going to be clean and basically be able to come back and play golf a year later.
"That was some pretty cool news."
Jarrod's three starts on the Web.com Tour will tell him a lot. He'll know what he needs to work on, and how get a read on his stamina. He'll be able to decide whether to go full-steam ahead to the PGA TOUR next year or whether he needs to reassess his plans.
Quite frankly, Briony doesn't even care if he makes any money. It's the smaller steps to her. But she knows her husband is a competitor, and he doesn't want to be out there taking up space if his scores don't measure up.
"If he makes a few cuts, I think that will boost his confidence," Briony said. "… Even if he then finishes last, he knows he can play. That's the biggest thing right now. He doesn't even know."
What Jarrod does know is that everywhere he plays, his story will be told. Sure, he’d rather be known for his golf. That may come in time. But for now, he’s known as the two-time cancer survivor.
He can live with that.
This is a man, after all, who needed 250 pints of blood to keep him alive the first time he had leukemia and more than 750 with his most recent diagnosis. He's quick to point out that he'll never know the two children whose cord blood has given him new life, or their families who made the decision to donate.
"But they’re very insignificant gestures on people’s behalf that mean the world to somebody,” he said.
Like many transplant recipients, Jarrod Lyle celebrates a new birthday. It’s no longer Aug. 21, 1981, but June 8, 2012, the date of his second bone marrow transplant. It’s a date that’s hard to forget, and not just because Briony has it tattooed on the inside of her left arm.
Last June, a party was held for Lyle’s “first” birthday. He dressed up as Superman, and also wore princess wings and a tiara. It was his fun way of playing along with his new age.
Lusi doesn’t yet know that she is older than her dad now.
“All she knows is there’s a cake and a balloon,” laughed Briony.
But one day Lusi’s parents will explain the situation to her, that her dad has bravely fought two battles against cancer, and that had it not been for the generosity of the umbilical cord blood donors, he might not be with us today.
They will also explain to Lusi that her own cord blood was stored after her birth, and that perhaps someone else’s father will use it for a second chance at life.
“It’s a pretty incredible thing,” Jarrod said, “to be able to donate blood that you know is going to go to somebody to help them live.”
For now, the RV is packed and has a full tank of gas. The open road awaits. It’s time for Jarrod Lyle to play golf again.