Twenty-six years ago, Jim Kruse spent his time raising miniature horses, announcing horse shows, working with 4-H and the county fair, attending Green Bay Packer games and bowling.
These days, most of his waking hours are spent just feeding himself.
For Kruse, this situation has good news and bad news. The good news is that the 71-year-old is is a 26-year survivor of tongue cancer. The bad news is that survival has come at a cost. In addition to losing the ability to speak, he has complications with scar tissue, and is restricted to a liquid diet regimen that consumes much of his life.
Kruse’s medical challenges began in 1990. Following a lingering illness, Kruse was diagnosed by the Mayo Clinic as having cancer of the tongue, which required the removal of his entire tongue, larynx and lymph nodes in August 1990. Kruse’s initial surgery took 15½ hours and was followed by 36 radiation treatments.
The surgery rendered him speechless and from the time of the surgery until 2014, Kruse subsisted on Instant Breakfast and ice cream.
At the time of the surgery he was told not to learn sign language because those around him would not understand it. He has developed his own style of communication that blends hand signals, facial expressions and keyboarding.
During this time, however, Kruse remained active, bowling and attending — but not announcing — horse shows. He was active with two Masonic lodges, volunteered with the Interfaith Nightly Network shelter and rang bells at Christmas for the Salvation Army.
Before his first cancer surgery, Kruse worked at the Kenosha News as printer. He then worked at American Brass until he got ill and retired on disability.
Although he no longer spoke, Kruse also worked hard to keep his voice heard. In 2010 he reached out to Kenosha News columnist Steve Lund, sharing details of the past 20 years via emails and a notepad.
Recently, Kruse, now a Kenosha resident, contacted the News regarding changes in his medical status in the six years since then. Using a keyboard-based communication device that voices what he types, and a steno notebook and pen, Kruse related that in these years he has undergone surgeries on his neck, intestines, shoulders and wrists.
Some of his medical challenges are related, some are not. Surgery on his neck done in 2014 involved joining discs in his neck damaged by radiation therapy with what he describes is a “swizzle stick”-like device. From time to time, it needs to be replaced.
These surgeries have contributed to a hole on his neck that no longer complete closes.
Kruse has also had surgery to repair the rotator cuff in both shoulders (2014) and carpel tunnel surgery on his right wrist (2016), were unrelated to Kruse’s cancer treatments or subsequent feeding requirements.
The latest development, obstruction of the bowel, resulted in surgery in 2014 and an all-liquid diet ingested via feeding tube. Told not to rush his feedings, Kruse now spends two hours ingesting each of his four meals, a total of eight hours a day.
To prevent future bowel obstructions, Kruse says his doctor told him to take more time with his feeding process.
Every six months Kruse must return to surgery for a replacement of the feeding tube inserted in his stomach.
Kruse’s feeding routine cuts considerably into time he would have to attend Masonic lodge meetings or watching football games. And for the same reason, bowling is also now out of the question.
“I thought this has been a lot of stuff in six years,” Kruse wrote.
The upside is that Kruse has been declared cancer-free since 2000.
He also steps back to appreciate what he still has. He writes, “To tell the truth, the feeding(s) are a real pain but I feel it is better to be vertical than horizontal.”
Kruse notes that he has gotten by with a lot of support from friends, family and his girlfriend of five years, Jeanette Monaghan.
The two met during better times, when Kruse was delivering flowers to Kenosha Medical Center’s gift shop and she was a volunteer there. She has been with him through the thick and thin of his recent medical trials.
“I wouldn't trade him for the world, but you don't want to cross him,” Monaghan, 79, said. “If you get on his list you won't get off.”
Because so much of his waking time is spent ingesting his liquid nutrition, he often does it while spending time with Monaghan at her Kenosha home.
Kruse may not call out horse shows any longer, but he enjoys spending time reading, especially about the Packers. “My goal in life is to live to be 91 so I would have lived one half of my life talking and the other half not talking,” he wrote.
“I enjoy life very much and consider myself lucky to be alive. I seriously feel like I have gone through hell and I survived.” His advice to others who struggle: “Have dedication and determination.”