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Turbulent waters give way to smooth sailing

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 8, 2002

CRYSTAL RIVER -- Debi Raab is reveling in the details.

The relay team isn't quite sure what it's doing, and foul weather has foiled most of her squad's preparation before the first meet of the season against Lecanto.

Problems? Not even.

Standing on the deck at one end of Centennial Pool, Raab's Hernando boys and girls teams huddled below her, she -- at last -- can be Debi Raab, swim coach. Once these two precious hours are through, she goes back to her real job: Debi Raab, cancer survivor.

"I hope I don't push it too much," Raab said. "Will I? Yeah, I probably will. The doctor said I can do whatever I feel like I can handle. But I don't need to get too hot and get my bandages wet."

It's a rare moment of caution in a fight she has approached with toughness and candor.

* * *

No one would begrudge Raab a fit of foot-stomping self-pity if she laid her head down and cried. But even after learning this summer that she had breast cancer, undergoing a mastectomy and watching her marriage of 33 years dissolve, Raab has decided she will not be a sad character.

Hers is a story of interminable resolve.

"I think maybe we're through the rocky stuff," Raab said, pulling her stopwatch over her neck. "I think maybe I'm due for some smooth stuff now."

Relatively speaking.

Raab, who can walk but is unable to pull herself up on her team bus, will undergo an outpatient procedure to create an opening for a tube in her chest to facilitate chemotherapy. The 24-week regimen will be trying, but given her summer, she considers it the easy part.

Raab, 50, learned something was "not quite right" in early May after her doctor examined the results of her yearly mammogram. She underwent another at the end of May, prompting her doctor to order a biopsy for July 3 after discovering a small lump.

The report came back July 10, the day after Raab filed for divorce from her husband, Robert. She had the early stages of breast cancer, becoming one of the 205,000 new cases the American Cancer Society estimated for 2002. A lumpectomy was performed July 24.

Lab results showed abnormal cells lingered around three of her lymph nodes, and she underwent a mastectomy Aug. 21. A week later, Robert left for Texas to be with someone he had met on the Internet, Raab said.

* * *

But she's far from alone.

"The response after her operation was phenomenal," Hernando assistant coach Kathy Dofka said. "The kids went up and pitched in and got her a gift. I can't imagine how many kids were in her hospital room at one time."

Office mates at the Hernando High Exceptional Student Education Department have assumed extra duties on days Raab has had to miss work. Her daughter, Stefanie, and son, Steve, drive her to appointments and attend swim meets. Assistant coaches Linda Christian and Dofka have taken on more responsibility.

"It's been a little bit of everybody helping me out," Raab said. "Kids, parents, the girls at ESE all make sure I get my rides and get where I need to be.

"You find out who your friends are when you need them," she said.

The extent of Raab's ability to coach is dictated by her energy. She's allowed to drive short distances, but often spends practices on a picnic bench as her assistants see to hands-on tasks.

"We'll all be there to help," Dofka said. "No one wants to take it from her, but we'll be there to help if she needs help."

Raab's swimmers seem to get as much out of her as she does the chance to resume normal activity.

"I think it means a lot," said Kennah Johnson, whose grandmother had breast cancer. "She's been with our team for a long time, and she knows we all love her here and we all wish the best for her here. I think it kind of is good therapy to take her mind off things and put up with us for a while."

Raab's children have no doubt their mother will be all right. Whether that comes from faith or belief in her strength or the need to say it out loud, they're steadfast.

"I don't think this is even fazing her," Steve Raab said. "She's doing fine, and that's that."

Debi Raab recently saw one of her life's rough spots smoothed out. Jillian Raab, the daughter of Debi's oldest son, Scott, was born about six weeks premature Aug. 15. Home from the hospital, she met her grandmother Friday.

* * *

No one knows if Raab will feel well enough to attend practices and meets during her chemotherapy regimen. She's entering it with positive momentum, though. That's all she can do.

"The doctor said, 'Do whatever you can physically do. People heal much better that way,' " Raab said. "I said, 'You're my kind of doctor. Don't tell me to quit, because I don't plan on it.'

"I'm not going to miss any meets unless I've died, and they haven't told me I'm dead yet."

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