On a warm May afternoon, Randy Pluff sat in his truck to eat lunch. During his 21 years with Bridenhagen Tree & Landscape, he ate cereal as his midday meal.
Nothing about May 19 seemed any different to him, until right before his lunch break.
“I felt a little weird,” he said. “Then I took lunch, sat in the truck. I had my yogurt, and I remember pouring my milk…and that’s all I remember: the milk and then waking up in the ambulance.”
Randy doesn’t remember anything because he had a seizure after pouring his milk, at which time his co-worker Victor Soriano found him and called for help.
When Randy’s wife Michele received a phone call that afternoon, she knew something bad had happened.
“Ivan Bridenhagen called and said, ‘My dad wants to talk to you,’ so right away I knew something was wrong,” she said. “Keith [Bridenhagen] got on the phone and told me that [Randy] had a seizure and that he was okay, but they were taking him down to [Ministry Door County Medical Center].”
Michele picked up her mother-in-law Jane, and while the two drove to Sturgeon Bay they brainstormed about what could have caused the seizure.
“The whole time…we were thinking because his dad had heart problems that it was heart related,” Michele said. “It was the first warmer day, and we thought he just didn’t drink enough fluid.”
A CT Scan revealed the cause – a tumor in Pluff’s brain. He was soon transferred to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Green Bay. After getting multiple opinions, they decided to go with a neurosurgeon from Appleton.
About a month after the seizure changed his life, Randy underwent surgery June 24 to remove the tumor – technically called an anaplastic oligoastrocytoma – nested in his brain. It was nearly as large as a tennis ball. After the surgery the tumor was sent to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. for testing.
The tests graded Randy’s tumor on a scale from one to five, with one and two signaling a benign tumor and three and above signaling a more aggressive, cancerous tumor. The tumor came back graded with multiple numbers: one, two and three. The three rating meant Randy would have to undergo radiation to kill any remaining cancerous cells – not the outcome the doctors expected.
“We were shocked because [the doctors] kind of kept saying they didn’t think it was cancer, just by the way it looked,” Randy said.
He hoped to be back at work part time within three weeks, but an infection caused swelling and an abnormal lump on his head. On Aug. 3 he was back in the hospital undergoing a second surgery. This one left him with a titanium plate in his head where some bone was removed, as well as a permanent intravenous drip. Since the titanium plate cannot be curved, a portion of Pluff’s head is now flat.
The setbacks have been tough on the 40-year-old, who has two daughters, 12-year-old Jordan and 10-year-old Payton. The girls have taken the news as well as can be expected, although Michele said the situation is overwhelming at times. The girls’ well being has become a main priority as the family braces for the long road back to normalcy.
Randy will start radiation soon after Sept. 13, and could possibly finish by mid-October if all goes well. Once radiation treatments are over, Randy will need Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans every three months for a year, an expensive test that will detect whether the cancer has returned.
It’s a dramatic change for a man who, in addition to his work as a landscaper for Bridenhagen Tree & Landscape, is active in the community and coaches youth basketball and softball as well.
“He’s a loving brother, a great husband, a good father,” said Jolynn Reinhardt, Randy’s sister. “He’s a hard worker, dedicated to his family and his friends. He’s a huge Brewers fan. He’s just a good person.”
His friends know him as Chopper because, as his mother remembers, one of his uncles gave him the nickname and “it just stuck.”
Like any couple with middle-school-aged children the Pluffs anticipated a busy summer, but nothing like the one they’ve experienced.
Instead of running their girls around, Randy and Michele have been driving to Appleton for check-ups and appointments. Randy hasn’t worked since his seizure, but Michele is still logging hours at Bhirdo’s, her family’s gas station and convenience store in Sister Bay. The girls have stayed with Randy’s mother Jane more often as well.
Family friend Becky Higginbotham said Randy made strides immediately after the first surgery, but the second surgery has kept him homebound much more, unable to work as his medical expenses mount.
Now Higginbotham and other friends have convinced Pluff and his wife to let them organize a benefit, Tailgating with Chopper. Reinhardt said at this point a benefit is something that has to be done.
“I can’t even imagine what the bills are; two brain surgeries in five weeks – it’s almost unbelievable,” she said.
The Tailgating with Chopper benefit will be held Oct. 23 at the Gordon Lodge.
During such a stressful time, Reinhardt said she’s been trying to help her brother and his family any way she can, and she hopes that all those who want to help Randy and his family will take the opportunity the benefit provides.
“So many people want to know how they can help and I think the benefit in and of itself is their way of helping,” Reinhardt said. “It’s just one of those things that a small community can do to support someone.”