Dean Tonseth

11/4/2013
When you develop a life-threatening medical condition that you don't suspect you have, it pays to have a diligent physician.

Dean Tonseth knows a little providence doesn't hurt either.

At 67, Tonseth is tall and fit-looking with an active lifestyle, formidable faith and an irrepressibly optimistic outlook on life. Raised on the west side, he was fresh out of the Army and just back from Vietnam when he arrived in Ellensburg in August 1969 to attend Central Washington University. That month, he met an attractive coed named Danielle. The timing was lousy, he warned her. He was going through a divorce - and trying to get his head together.

"Before I went to Vietnam I married my high school sweetheart," he says. "I came home and got dumped." In retrospect, "it was the best thing that ever happened to me."

He and Danielle dated off and on. Cupid persevered.

One day, out with friends in Ellensburg, Dean popped the question. "I said, 'I need you to keep me in line'," he says. "She was everything I wanted - a good, moral, beautiful young lady."

The Tonseths married in June 1972. By then Danielle had landed a teaching job in Kittitas, and Dean was a program coordinator working with developmentally disabled adults and children. Along the way, he found his passion and returned to college to get a degree in special education. He spent three years working in the Cle Elum Roslyn School District, then six years as a stay-at-home dad raising their two young sons.

Nearly forty years later, Danielle is retired after 30 years in teaching; Dean, retired as administrator of a state-run residential program in Yakima after a career with the Department of Developmental Disabilities.

Last July, Dean went for his annual physical with Dr. Jamin Feng of KVH Internal Medicine. Lab results seemed fine, except for what appeared to be a low platelet count. A second test got the same results. Puzzled, Feng ordered an ultrasound and a CT scan.

"I had no pain, no symptoms but the test results showed a suspicious spot, probably no bigger than my thumbnail on my pancreas," says Dean, who was referred to Virginia Mason Medical Center where more tests confirmed the tumor. "You have pancreatic cancer," his oncologist said. "My goal for you is a permanent cure."

It turns out the blood test results weren't related to any medical issue, and his cancer diagnosis was "a fluke," according to Dean. Feng later told them there was no rational explanation to why the cancer was discovered so early, saying that it was "the providence of God" that led to the diagnosis.

"He is just an amazing man. Basically, he saved my life," Dean says. Feng's caring went beyond the diagnosis. One evening, Dean's phone rang. It was Feng, saying he was going to Canada for a visit but that Dean should call "at any time" if he had questions. "And he said, 'I will pray for you.'"

For Dean, that means a lot.

Now undergoing chemotherapy to reduce the tumor in preparation for surgery to remove it, Dean told his oncologist, "I have a lot of people praying for me."

The oncologist’s reply? "'Well, that makes my job easier,'" Dean recalls - and beams.

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