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Heart of a fighter: 33-year-old battles heart disease after bout with cancer

By Erika Pedroza | Published Saturday, August 9, 2014

An enthusiast for dark images, David Ray Crunk of Chico sports a tattoo of the Grim Reaper on the left side of his chest, near his heart.

Although his mother, Judy Crunk, may teasingly describe it as morbid, she admits it’s kind of ironic considering the brushes her 33-year-old son has had with death.

Life Pack

LIFE PACK – David Ray Crunk always carries with him this bag adorned with the emblem of his favorite baseball team. The pack contains the machine that constantly pumps dobutamine to keep his heart going. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

In addition, the ink borders the traces of the very devices that have kept him alive – a port used to administer chemotherapy when he battled cancer at the age of 11, and a defibrillator that now regulates his heart after complications from the chemotherapy arose more than 20 years later.

Despite the odds, David Ray remains strong and is enjoying life as much as he can while he awaits a heart transplant.

“He’s a fighter, that’s for sure,” Judy said. “He’s never given up.”

DAVID’S BATTLE

BATTLE SCARS – David Ray Crunk has a tattoo of a grim reaper – ironically located near traces of the very devices that have kept him alive – a port used to administer chemotherapy when he battled cancer at the age of 11 and a defibrillator installed almost 22 years later to regulate his heartbeat. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

David Ray was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in November of 1991, at the age of 11.

After two years of chemotherapy, he went into remission.

“When he was diagnosed, they only gave him a 30 percent of survival because 95 percent of his bone marrow were leukemia cells,” Judy said. “But here he is.”

For most of 22 years, David Ray lived a normal life.

“I would get dizzy every now and then, but that was it,” he said.

He graduated from Bridgeport High School in 2000 and went straight to work, finally landing a job at Wal-Mart.

It was there, more than two decades later, that the effects of the treatment he’d received as an adolescent resurfaced.

“I took him to work that afternoon,” Judy recalled. “He was telling me, ‘My chest feels funny.’ I said, ‘It’s probably because you were laying around. Just go start moving around. You’ll be all right.’”

A couple of hours later, on Nov. 9, David Ray had a heart attack.

“I was unloading a grocery truck,” he recalled. “I got halfway, and I could not breathe. It felt like my chest was caving in.”

He informed his managers who instructed him to clock out before rushing him to Wise Regional Health System in Decatur.

He was admitted immediately and remained there for about a week.

In the months following, David Ray returned, almost routinely.

“He was going to the hospital once or twice a week,” Judy said.

After multiple tests, doctors determined the cause.

“When he was diagnosed (with cancer), they tried an experimental drug on him,” Judy said. “We don’t know if it was the regular chemo or the experimental drug that caused the complications. But the doctors are saying this is a result of that treatment.”

David Ray has had at least two other heart attacks, most recently in February.

“They didn’t think he was going to pull through that one,” Judy said. “But he did.”

HEART SUPPORT

LOVE OF FAMILY – David Ray Crunk (seated) says the support of his family including (from left) brother Greg, father David and mother Judy has helped him stay strong throughout his medical issues. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Following that heart attack, doctors sent David Ray to the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix for additional testing and treatment options. He was there three months before the options presented were no longer viable.

“They needed someone to be there with him full-time for an unknown amount of time – it could’ve been months or even years,” Judy said. “But we had nobody that could just quit their job and stay with him.”

So David Ray returned home. The following day, his father took him to a doctor’s appointment in Dallas.

“I went to get a Coke, and when I came back, they were admitting him into a room because he was having trouble breathing,” his father, David, said.

After that incident, doctors discovered his heart and, consequently, his other organs were shutting down.

“That’s when they put the defibrillator in, finally,” Judy said.

With the device, David Ray must always carry with him a backpack that contains the machine that pumps dobutamine into his right arm. The sympathomimetic drug is used in the treatment of heart failure and cardiogenic shock.

“This is serious stuff,” David Ray said.

“The medicine keeps his heart going,” his mother added. “The pill form of medicine doesn’t work on him, so he has to have his medicine through an IV.”

A home nurse visits every Monday to change the dressing and check for infections. The batteries on the machine must be changed every other day, even though the shelf life is longer.

“They don’t want to take a chance,” Judy said.

With the odds stacked against him, there’s no room for taking more risks.

THE IMPLICATIONS

Because of the condition of his heart, David Ray’s activities are limited. He can’t work, drive or lift more than 5 pounds, and he easily becomes tired.

“I can’t walk around much,” he said. “If I do, I could black out because I can’t get my heart racing.”

Once a frequenter of area amusement and water parks, he is now restricted to video games and watching television.

Even routine tasks, like haircuts and cell phone-toting, have been redefined.

“You can’t use sheers or clippers on him because the vibrations from it will detect that his heart is not beating correctly, and the defibrillator will shock him,” Judy said. “He can’t carry a cell phone on (his left) side. He can’t answer a cell phone on that side.”

Tattoos, one of David Ray’s favorite things, are out of the question.

He is also susceptible to any illness.

“We have people call us before they come over, and if they’re sick, we don’t let them come over,” his mother said. “We can’t take the chance.”

But, at the insistence of his doctors, David Ray tries to get out as much as he can.

“I like to hang out with my cousins,” he said.

A couple of weekends ago, his family took a weekend trip to San Antonio. His “packing” list included a call from his doctors to their colleagues in the area to give them a heads-up, just in case.

That has become the norm for David Ray and his family – precautions and waiting.

WAITING GAME

Doctors at Medical City of Dallas placed David Ray on the waiting list for a new heart upon his return from Arizona in May.

As a second-tier listing and with the common blood type, his wait time may be prolonged.

“They did tell us that a heart for him will be difficult to find,” Judy said. “His blood type is O positive so the doctor said it’s the most common blood type and harder to receive a heart because there are so many other people waiting also.

All they can do is wait on a heart, visit the doctor monthly and continue to fight.

“We’re holding strong, aren’t we?” his mother asks.

David Ray nods his head slowly.

“I can’t wait to get back to work and to get to do more,” he said. “I’m ready to get this over with.”

TEAM DAVID RAY

Family members are planning to hold a dodgeball tournament fundraiser in October. Details will be posted on the Team David Ray group on Facebook.

His sister, Tiffany White, established a benefit account, and donations may be made at First State Bank in Chico, Paradise, Bridgeport or Runaway Bay.

The family has also held a garage sale, bake sale and barbecue supper.

“We’ve run out of ideas,” said Judy Crunk, David Ray’s mother. “We’ve got bills pouring in still, and we’re starting to get low on funds.”

Updates on his progress are also posted on the aforementioned Facebook page.

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