What began as an ordinary case of skin cancer nearly cost former Houston County District Attorney Kelly Burke his life.
Burke had suffered severe neck pain for 18 months. He had been to doctors in varying specialties who could not figure out what was wrong. Then a friend suggested that he try the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, and that's what he did.
Had he not, as it turns out, he almost certainly would have died within weeks.
From the first time he met with a doctor at Mayo, Burke could see something was different.
"The other doctors would open your file and start reading about you and asking you questions," he said. "He didn't do that. He already knew. He had already read it. He had already reviewed it with a team of other doctors."
They wanted to redo the imaging scans that other doctors had done. What they saw raised enough concerns that they did a biopsy.
That weekend, Burke went snow skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho, thinking life was great except for the pain in his neck, which left him barely able to turn his head. He knew cancer was a possibility, but he was holding out hope it could be something less threatening. Inflammation had been mentioned as one possibility.
On Feb. 1, 2017, the Wednesday after his ski weekend, he got a call from a Mayo doctor who began by asking him if he was sitting down. He was told he had cancer and needed to come down as soon as possible. At the clinic, doctors laid it out straight to Burke and his wife, Mary Ann.
"He said 'Mr. Burke, in 30 days, you are dead. Untreated, you are done,'" Burke recalled as he sat with Mary Ann on his living room couch and recounted the events of the past year.
With treatment, doctors told him, the chances of cure were good. But the treatment alone, including radiation and chemotherapy, was going to be terrible and could kill him.
It nearly did.
'I woke up dead'
Burke is well-known across Middle Georgia. From 1997 to 2010 he served as Houston County district attorney, battling hardened criminals in the courtroom. He left to return to private practice, where about a fourth of his work now involves defending those accused of crimes.
A year ago he turned his fighting spirit against cancer. When he was told he would be dead soon without treatment, he responded, "Well, then, let's start treatment."
Only a year earlier he had lost a sister to cancer.
There was a reason why other doctors did not detect his cancer. The doctors at Mayo told him they had never seen what he had, and they could not find a recorded case of it anywhere.
Burke admits that in his youth, he had a bad habit of going outdoors in the summer without sunscreen. He suffered some severe sunburns. He's had skin cancers removed many times. In fact, he had one removed from his chin not long before the pain started in his neck.
He wondered if that had anything to do with his neck pain, but doctors assured him that it did not. The area around the skin cancer showed no signs that it had spread.
As it turns out, the skin cancer, called a squamous cell carcinoma, had gotten into a nerve and traveled all the way around to the back of his right ear and into his brain stem. That's what doctors had not seen before. It had left no trace behind it, so that's why it had seemed not to have spread from his chin.
Burke began a 30-day regimen of daily radiation treatments and chemotherapy once a week. It was a breeze at first, but then the chemotherapy began to hit him hard.
He grew weak and was unable to do much. He had to go on a feeding tube. He and Mary Ann were staying at a friend's condominium in Fernandina Beach while he got the treatment. Despite his poor state, and with one treatment left to go, Burke insisted on going to a Harbor Freight store. A friend was working on a car, and Burke wanted to buy him a tool set that he needed.
So Mary Ann took him, but while he was there became so weak he had to sit down.
"That's the last thing I remember until I woke up dead," he said.
'I can't believe Keith Richards outlived me'
Although Mary Ann got him home from the store and he remained conscious, he had no memory of the next three days. His condition continued to worsen.
Around midnight, he took a clear turn for the worse. He didn't know who Mary Ann was and became resistant. A fire station with a paramedic crew happened to be just down the street, so Mary Ann called 911 and they got there quickly. Burke looked so bad that they asked if he was in hospice care.
Although they offered to take him to the local hospital, Mary Ann wanted to get him to Mayo, so they helped her load him in the car and she headed off.
As it turned out, the cancer treatment had shut down his pancreas. His blood sugar measurement had reached a level that is often fatal. After two days in intensive care, he began to rebound gradually
As he started to come to, in his haze he saw two figures that appeared to him to be an executioner dressed in all black and another that looked like an angel in all white. As it turned out, it was just two staff members.
But to Burke, it seemed profoundly real.
"I thought I was dead, and I went 'Wow, so this is what it is like to be dead.' ... I said 'Well, the treatment didn’t work, and I didn’t make it. It’s been a great life and I’ve had a great time. Thank you Lord for putting Mary Ann in my life.' I went through the whole thing."
So complete was his belief that he was dead that two odd thoughts occurred to him. One was that he had forgotten to tell anyone that he wanted his MGB sports car to go to his 16-year-old daughter. He wondered if there was a way to send a message about that back from the dead.
The other notion? "I can’t believe Keith Richards outlived me." Anyone who knows Burke knows that he is a devoted rock 'n' roll fan. Keith Richards is the hard-living guitarist for the Rolling Stones.
Burke soon realized he wasn't dead and still has a shot at outliving Richards.
Ringing the bell
Burke was still in ICU, but doctors went ahead with his last radiation treatment (although they decided to skip the last chemo.) When patients finish radiation, a tradition is to ring a bell in the room. Burke had been looking forward to ringing that bell, but he was too weak at the time to do it.
Three months later, though, after he improved, he returned to ring it.
On Feb. 1, a year to the day he found out he had cancer, doctors gave him the results of his latest tests.
"They came in and said 'Wow, we've just never seen this. It's resolved. It's completely gone. We have no evidence that you had cancer,'" he said.
Although doctors had given him a good prognosis with treatment, it was expected to take years to reach the point he is at now. He isn't considered cured, though. He will continue to have to have tests every three months and generally only after five years will doctors say he is cured.
Skiing is Burke's passion, and he told one of his doctors that his biggest goal was to be able to ski again. He was able to do that in December..
He and Mary Ann credited his recovery both to the Mayo staff and support from friends, family, co-workers and even people they have never met.
He is now diabetic because of the treatment. He still has pain in his neck — and may always have — but that's OK with him. He believes having a positive attitude helped him through it.
"I never thought it was going to go bad," he said. "Even when I thought I was dead, I went, 'Ah, it was a great life.'"
Mary Ann summed up the experience this way:
"Count your blessings," she said. "You can get hit by a train tomorrow. That’s kind of what it felt like, a train wreck."