Joe Mollica handles tumor as just another rocky spot in the river of life | PostIndependent.com
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Joe Mollica handles tumor as just another rocky spot in the river of life

Joe Mollica has his priorities straight these days: family and friends, then work, then community service.A track meet in Delta last year helped him decide exactly where each of those should fall. Mollica, a Glenwood Springs High School life sciences teacher, went to the Delta meet as the school’s cross-country coach. He was running around the track, watching and encouraging the runners, when his head started pounding and his left ear went quiet.Mollica checked in with his doctor, who thought the pain and hearing loss were nothing, but just to be safe, ordered an MRI.It turned out Mollica had an acoustic neuroma – a brain tumor that grows on the balance nerve. “I thought I was gonna die for sure,” he half-joked Wednesday, after his last-period AP biology class. He was eager to go out for a jog. As he spoke, he brought up a bookmarked Web site on his classroom computer – the rafting permit site for the San Juan River. “I used to like to climb those 14ers, then I discovered river rafting, and I don’t think I’ve been up on a mountain since,” he said. Rivers are clearly another one of Mollica’s priorities. A laid-back guy who much of the time is almost quiet, Mollica’s voice grew and his face lit up when the subject turned to running rivers. He takes one big river trip each summer. The San Juan is nice, he said, because he can bring along his two daughters, ages 8 and 11. Mollica also serves on the Glenwood Springs River Commission and on the Glenwood Springs Whitewater Park Committee. Mollica’s idea of the most beautiful place on the planet is the Grand Canyon, where he’s been twice.”I don’t know what it is I like about river trips so much,” he said. “I think it’s because you have to go with the flow of the river.”Even in the midst of getting a brain tumor removed, Mollica went with the flow. On Oct. 20 last year, after the regulation cross country season ended, Mollica went to a clinic – “a tumor factory,” he said – in Los Angeles that specializes in removing acoustic neuromas.He was lying on a gurney in the pre-operation room, with a nurse shaving his head for the surgery, when he heard saws working in the next room. “They were working on the patient in front of me,” he said.The Asian nurse, recognizing Mollica’s anxiety, could only think to say, “You don’t worry, they’re very good here – very little bleeding.””Isn’t that bizarre,” he said of the nurse’s reassurance. Months later, he still laughs about it. A week after doctors cut away a saucer-sized piece of skull to remove the tumor, Mollica went to see the girls cross country team compete in the state meet in Colorado Springs. Dizzy and propped up by friends most of the meet, Mollica’s effort inspired the team, said GSHS principal Mike Wells. “When the kids make it to a state meet, you’ve got to go,” said Mollica.Today, with adjusted priorities, Mollica’s recovery is almost complete. He still gets dizzy, but has recovered his hearing. He is busy planning for the summer, writing short stories and letters to newspaper editors, and helping his AP biology students match last year’s class’s extraordinary success on the AP test.”Now the big priority is to play and have fun,” he said.That’s not to say that Mollica’s trip through the operating room was easy. “But it’s better than the option.”Contact Ryan Graff: 945-8515, ext. 520rgraff@postindependent.com


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