Friday fundraiser to help couple with cancer
WORTHINGTON — A Friday evening fundraising event at the Worthington Elks Lodge will benefit Steve “Sarge” and Rita Bassett.
The Bassetts never envisioned themselves being in the position of needing such an outpouring of support and assistance; after all, who looks into the future and sees tandem cases of life-threatening cancer for oneself and one’s spouse?
But in June 2012, Steve (known affectionately to most friends as “Sarge”) spied an unusual, small spot on the side of his tongue. When neither a dentist nor doctor knew what to make of it, Steve was referred to an oral surgeon who biopsied it and determined it was cancerous.
“I went to Rochester [Mayo Clinic] and they cut it all out, they thought they had everything,” Steve said.
However, on Oct. 1, 2013, Steve detected a little lump on the back of his tongue, and back he went to Mayo.
“They went in, found it was cancerous, and also found the cancer had spread to my jawbone and a couple of lymph nodes,” said Steve, who was not a smoker or tobacco chewer.
That’s when the Bassetts’ months-long medical journey began in earnest, with the couple reporting to Rochester for surgical prep on Oct. 16, not guessing it would be a new year before they were able to return home for any meaningful length of time.
“I was in surgery for 14 hours on Oct. 18,” reported Steve. “They removed my jawbone and took a small bone from the lower part of my right leg — supposedly a bone you don’t need — and made me a new jawbone out of it.
“Then they took some skin and blood vessels from down there, put it in where the jaw goes, added the skin on to my tongue, then took a skin graft from my upper leg to put on the lower part of my leg.”
Thirty to 40 of Steve’s lymph nodes were removed, and he was hospitalized for 10 days following the surgery.
“Then they started me on radiation and chemotherapy treatments in Rochester, and we stayed at the Hope Lodge [sponsored by the American Cancer Society for cancer patients] just a block from Mayo’s subway access,” Steve said.
All Steve’s nutrients and calories have come in the form of a feeding tube in his stomach since Oct. 18, and only recently has he begun to sip water through his mouth.
“It’s very weird,” he said. “When you get your prescription filled at Mayo and they know your name, you know you’ve been there awhile. But I’ve had a wonderful nurse — my wife.”
Indeed, Rita remained by Steve’s side through the two-plus months of treatments and endless rounds of medical appointments. They were looking forward to restoring Steve’s health, getting back to their comfortable Worthington home, and eventually returning to their jobs (he is a senior lab technician at Merck, where he’s worked for 26 years, and she has been an eligibility worker for Nobles County Community Services since 1990).
But Rita, who had been feeling “tired all the time,” visited the doctor in Worthington for some blood work before mid-October.
“They were watching it,” she said, “but since we were in Rochester, I thought I’d get a second opinion there.”
On Dec. 31, the very day Steve was able to “ring the bell” celebrating the end of his radiation treatments, the couple learned a sobering new truth: Rita had chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
“I then had to have two platelet infusions in early January, so my platelet level has risen a little bit since then,” she said. “The hematologist wants to get my platelet level up before treating me more aggressively.”
The Bassetts, both in their early 60s, married in the 1970s and have two sons — Troy and Brent. Troy and his wife Angie live in Rochester and have a 16-month-old daughter, Olivia, while Brent and his wife Rachel live in the Twin Cities.
“They’re definitely something to live for,” shared Steve, a native of Rushmore; Rita was from Harris, Iowa. Steve, who graduated from Worthington High School in 1969 before serving in the Army (stationed in Korea) from 1970-72, met Rita following his military stint.
It’s Steve’s love of sports — softball, baseball and football in particular — plus the couple’s collective community involvement over the years that led to so many people reaching out to host Friday’s benefit for the Bassetts.
“We’ve been good friends with Steve and Rita forever, and our kids grew up together,” said one organizer, Bev Watje. “I’m amazed at the number of people wanting to help.”
Steve played baseball in high school, as well as with community teams beginning at age 15, and he continued playing both baseball and football at Minnesota West (then Worthington Community College).
For the past 10 years he has been Rosalie “Moz” Hayenga’s assistant coach for the Minnesota West girls’ softball team, and he’s also been a longtime assistant coach with the Minnesota West football program.
“I’ve always helped any kids who needed help with pitching or softball,” said Steve. “If they called me, I made time.”
Attested Hayenga, “Sarge is an invaluable part of our softball program, and he puts in an incredible amount of time and effort.
“He’s put his heart and soul into the program, and he’s a player’s coach. The kids really think highly of him and appreciate all he’s done for them — which is obvious, because since his diagnosis, I can’t believe the amount of texts and calls I’ve gotten asking for updates on him or what they can do to help.
“That says it all,” she continued. “If you haven’t seen a coach in eight or more years but you’re instantly moved to find out what you can do for him when he needs help, you know he’s crucial to your kids and program.”
Last year, Steve received a plaque from the Minnesota State High School League in recognition of his 20 years of umpiring. He’s also been an active Worthington Optimist since 1973 and is a member of the local VFW, American Legion, Elks and Knights of Columbus.
Rita has supported Steve in all of his sporting and community service efforts; she says she also enjoys reading and doing jigsaw puzzles and “brain games.”
Today, the Bassetts are back in Rochester as Rita begins a round of chemotherapy.
“We’re hoping to be in town for the Friday fundraiser, but we have to be in Rochester Monday and Tuesday for sure,” she said, adding that they are extremely grateful to the “wonderful, wonderful” neighbors, employers and co-workers who have supported them in numerous ways over the past several months.
With neither of the Bassetts having been able to work since mid-October, Watje said she and other friends “know what kind of bills come up, and they’ve always been there anytime we’ve needed them, so you do what you can to help out.”
The Bassetts are moved to tears by the expressions of support they are receiving, and by the upcoming benefit.
“It’s beyond words how wonderful this is,” assured Rita. “You don’t realize how within one day your life can change and never, ever be the same again, but these friends and family wanting to help and support us — it’s overwhelming.”
Hayenga offered, “Sarge and Rita have done so many things for the community that it’s a really neat thing to see the community give back to them and rally around them.”
The benefit for the Bassetts is from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Elks Lodge, 1105 Second Ave., Worthington; Thrivent is matching funds. A free-will offering will be accepted for a pulled-pork meal; a silent auction will also take place. Donations can be made at Wells Fargo Bank to the Steve and Rita Bassett Fund. An online auction, featuring unique sports memorabilia (autographed Jared Allen jersey, autographed Adrian Peterson photo, a Richard Childress-autographed die cast car and more) and family options (Mall of America/waterpark fun package, Chanhassen Dinner Theater tickets) begins today and continues through Feb. 15. Visit www.32auctions.com/basset to bid.