Look down the end of Idaho’s bench at a women’s basketball game this season, and you will find Drew Ruckelshaus, the athletic trainer for the Vandal women. While it’s Drew’s job to keep 12 players healthy throughout the season, his inspiration to become an athletic trainer came when his own health was in serious question.
As a 9-year-old boy, Drew had been battling leukemia for a year. That’s when the Indianapolis, Indiana, native had the opportunity to meet then-Indiana Pacers head athletic trainer David Craig.
“People laugh, but that’s how I got into athletic training,” Ruckelshaus said. “I was sitting at home and in the hospital, and my dad is good friends with the head athletic trainer for the Pacers. He kind of said ‘hey, Drew needs to come in and see what I do. Give him some inspiration or something.’ So I went into the Pacers’ athletic training room before a game, and literally saw what he did and was like ‘wow, this is what I want to do.’”
Drew’s battle with leukemia began when most kids were just learning how to read. At the age of 8, he went to the hospital with excruciating pain after getting hit in the chest while playing basketball. After a series of tests and an overnight stay in the hospital, Drew was diagnosed with leukemia — cancer of the blood that causes the body to produce too many white blood cells, which are unable to fight infection the way normal white blood cells do.
But to an 8-year-old, all that meant was he couldn’t play sports, or hang out with friends anymore.
“The thing with me is I was young, I was 8-years old, so you’re not really putting stuff together,” he said. “But then you’re like, this stinks, because you can’t go hang out with your buddies, you can’t go play basketball with them, you can’t play any sports.”
While missing out on time with his friends was a bummer for Drew, the bigger problem was dealing with chemotherapy, radiation, spinal tap, a daily assortment of pills, constant visits to the hospital, and a failing immune system.
When he was put on a three-year treatment plan to battle the disease, his doctors estimated Drew had a 60-65 percent chance of coming out on the other side.
“With leukemia, you don’t know how far it’s spread,” he said. “It’s not like a localized tumor where they can just take it out and you’ll be good to go. The best thing was I had a doctor who knew kids really well, and he would put everything into football and basketball terms so I could understand it.”
During his three and a half years of treatment, Drew estimates he missed about 250 days of school, and had to have a tutor teach him at home. On days when he was at school, he had to wear a mask and gloves to protect his weak immune system. If he got sick, he could easily stay sick for a month.
Not having the option to live a normal 10-year-old’s life also took its toll on Drew. While other kids his age were outside running around, playing sports, and having fun, he spent the majority of this time inside a hospital fighting for his life.
“The thing about it is you run into walls. You start off really well, like ‘we’ll fight this.’ And then you run into a wall. It was three and a half years of full-on treatment. I hit probably four or five real hard walls. Being in a hospital, yeah they’ve got all sorts of stuff you can do, but you get bored. You get mad, you get frustrated, and you’re holding down a 10-year-old to not play any sports, or not go out and play on a playground for months, it’s just brutal, so I ran into a couple walls there.”
For a young kid battling leukemia, tough times are guaranteed. But Drew kept his focus, and found motivation as the Indiana Pacers rallied around him.
“The whole thing with meeting the Pacers, I got that motivation from them. That was when they were making that really big run into the playoffs, so I fed off of them. I would go to every game, every playoff game. I’d go to their houses, I’d go to Thanksgiving dinner with them. In the ’96 playoffs, they all shaved their heads because I was bald. Reggie (Miller) started it and a couple others did it. That was pretty cool because when you’re eight years old and you’re bald, you’re getting made fun of.”
Of course, roadblocks can always arise and slow the process down. One of the biggest roadblocks Drew was faced with was a side-effect of the anabolic steroid he was taking to help his body recover from the radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
He developed a rare disease that essentially ate away the bone in his hip. With a handful of surgeries to repair the damage in his hip, Drew’s progress against leukemia was slowed.
“They kind of give you a timeline, they kind of map it out like ‘hey, this is when we’re going to start treatment, this is when we predict you could be better,’ but you don’t know what happens in between,” he said. “That’s the thing about fighting cancer, fighting leukemia. You can’t say, two years from now on March 14, you’re going to get your health back. You don’t know that. You just have to keep fighting, because you’re not going to make it if you don’t fight it.”
On June 15, 1998, after three and a half grueling years, Drew Ruckelshaus was cancer free.
His battle, however, was not over. The next five years, Drew said, were perhaps as hard as the previous three.
Drew was in remission, and had constant check-ups with his doctors to make sure he remained cancer free.
“I thought remission, for me, was the scariest time.” Drew said. “Because, if the cancer comes back when you’re in remission, you’re in trouble. What that means is, whatever they did the first time, didn’t work. And for me, they did pretty much everything. So, I was more scared of remission because at this time I’m 12, 13, 14 and older. I know what’s going on, so I knew, if this comes back, I’m in trouble. So that was probably the hardest part for me.”
But through five years of remission, and in the years since, Drew remains cancer free.
With advances in research and technology, treating cancer has come a long way, even in the short years since Drew won his battle. But still, Drew said, there is more research that needs to be done.
“There needs to be more money in the research,” he said. “One of my oncologists was really into the research, he would do all sorts of research on rats. In Indianapolis their cancer hospitals are enormous, and that’s what they do, they focus on research.”
He also kept his ties with the Indiana Pacers, and pursued his goal of becoming an athletic trainer at the same time. From 2003-06, while in high school, Drew worked as an athletic training intern for David Craig and the Pacers. He then went on to graduate from Miami (Ohio) University where he worked as a student athletic trainer, before coming to Idaho in the fall of 2010 to start his master’s degree and work with the women’s basketball team.
“You do have a new outlook on life,” he said. “My goal is to work harder than the person next to me. I want to be the hardest worker, and pretty much make everyone happy, that is what I try to do. Because once you see people telling you that you might not make it, you want to work that much harder, and I feel like that’s where I got most of my work ethic from.”