By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Dana Libonati: No place like home

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterLibonati speaks to a class of students after returning to teaching.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Libonati speaks to a class of students after returning to teaching.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterDana and Kim Libonati  enjoy  being home in McMinnville, where they can have lunch at Third Street Pizza. They stayed near Dana’s doctors for several weeks after his cancer surgery.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Dana and Kim Libonati enjoy being home in McMinnville, where they can have lunch at Third Street Pizza. They stayed near Dana’s doctors for several weeks after his cancer surgery.

He felt great for several reasons.

Dana, the patient, was between chemotherapy treatments. The chemo is fighting the residual effects of the rare cardiac tumor removed Oct. 10, but is debilitating in its own right.

Dana, the jazz pianist, was able to start composing again. Upbeat tunes, he said. “Nothing melancholy.”

Dana, the teacher, was looking forward to returning part time to his music theory and vocal jazz classes at McMinnville High School, where he’s in his 21st year.

And Dana was home.

“It absolutely has to do with being home, especially when you’ve been in the hospital,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that.”

Since he was released from Legacy Good Samaritan in Portland, Dana and his wife, Kim, had been staying with his brother and sister-in-law in Tigard. They wanted to be close to his doctors, just in case.

Finally, after two rounds of chemo and other treatments, they felt ready to return to McMinnville.

Kim said she was happy to get back, but apprehensive, as well. They last time they’d been home, Dana was very ill, with symptoms everyone associated with the pacemaker installed in early September and the underlying heart problems leading to its installation.

In fact, when she wanted to take him to the emergency room on Oct. 9, he was too sick to walk from the house to the car on his own. She’d had to call an ambulance.

Dana noted, bluntly, “I was dying.” And he’s not exaggerating.

Dana was rushed to Portland, where doctors were astounded to discover his illness wasn’t confined to the pacemaker. In fact, he had a tumor the size of an orange attached to his heart, and the cancer had spread throughout his body’s most vital organ.

He survived a risky, lengthy surgery to remove most of the cancer. And he has been improving ever since, although he still faces a long recovery.

Of course, he said, feeling great is a relative thing. He realizes he’s still nowhere near normal physically.

But he said he’s very, very happy to be home, to be able to visit people and to joke with family members and friends.

Not every day is a good one. But even on the worst, when the chemo makes him feel sick and robs him of energy, he keeps a positve outlook.

“I can’t take things as seriously as I did, when I’ve been through this,” Libonati said. “Now it’s like ... so what?”

Even shaving his head wasn’t that big a deal, he said. He knew he would be losing his hair anyway, as a result of the chemo, so he got out the razor. “It was sorta a rite of passage,” he said.

He doesn’t miss his hair, he said. Not really. It’s nothing compared to what he missed most during his weeks of illness: His students.

The other thing he misses is being able to play ice hockey, one of his favorite pastimes.

“My goal is to play again next fall,” he said. “That may be reasonable.”

But first, back to teaching.

Dana expects to be at Mac High part time over the next few weeks, as often as his chemotherapy allows.

When he’s not there, his classes will continue to be handled by Carol Stenson, a retired Salem-Keizer music teacher who also specializes in jazz. “She’s great for the kids,” he said.

He’s been pleased by the way the students, particularly those in the Twilighters, have helped keep the classes going.

Kim said the Twilighters act very mature, something she attributes to her husband’s teaching methods. “He sets high expectations and he treats them like adults,” she said.

Libonati visited his Mac High classroom a couple times while still staying in Tigard. At first, he said, students were apprehensive; they realized he was fragile and didn’t want to hurt him.

And that was appropriate. Even now, he has to be very careful about exposure to germs.

“I’m enforcing that,” said Kim, a nurse practitioner who works at Newberg’s Friendsview Manor.

She checked to make sure their grandchildren were sniffle-free before letting Dana play with them. And now that he’s going back to school, she’s supplying hand sanitizer for the classroom. He has to ask people to use it when they’re around him, she said.

Kim also is leading their efforts to fight the cancer with good nutrition. She said they will be working with a nutritionist who specializes in the field.

Nutrition and environmental factors must be contributing to cancer, she said, not just in Dana’s case, but throughout the population. Since her husband was diagnosed, she said, she’s heard about case after case of cancer.

Three out of four people’s lives are affected by the disease, she’s learned. Either they have cancer themselves, or have a friend or relative with it.

“Everyone has a cancer story,” she said.

The Libonatis said they have appreciated the messages, Facebook and Caring Bridge postings, cards and calls from community members. Many of Dana’s students, past and present, have been in touch over the last few weeks.

“I connected with so many former students ... verifying 20 years of work really touched their lives.”

Teachers don’t always learn about the impact they’ve made on their students, he said. He was fortunate.

“To have that, and to be where I am now ... to feel this good and be able to start cardiac rehab,” Dana mused. “Yeah, I feel great.”

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