Gresham man takes on Willamette to empower cancer patients like him
184-mile swim begins in Eugene June 2 and is set to end in north Portland
Over the next 18 days, Gresham man Dean Hall will attempt the extraordinary.
Starting Monday, June 2, the licensed therapist diagnosed with two forms of cancer leukemia and lymphoma will swim the entire length of the Willamette River, 184 miles, to prove that cancer patients like himself dont have to give up on their dreams and ambition.
Leading him in a bright-orange kayak is Halls tenacious 79-year-old father, a former Mazama mountain climber who was diagnosed with the same form of leukemia as his son and who has taken over the logistics of the swim.
Hall cites three reasons why hes doing this.
Blood cancers are the number-one killer in America today, Hall said. Ive got two of them, and neither one are in remission.
For every mile Hall swims, he is asking supporters to donate $1, $5, $10 or more.
As part of his Swimming in Miracles fundraising campaign for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, every dollar he earns goes straight to research or the aide of those suffering with a blood cancer.
Secondly, Hall, a marriage and family therapist of Dean Hall Counseling Services in downtown Gresham, said in his practice he has seen people diagnosed with cancer especially men often give up on their dreams.
I want to show to cancer patients that they dont have to limit themselves, Hall said. The only thing that limits us is our own belief systems. I believe I can do this, so I will.
Having never been a competitive swimmer, Hall began swimming in a Gresham pool last summer, gradually upping his training until he got serious about taking on the Willamette this February.
Hall said he is just an ordinary guy.
A guy who believes that if he can front crawl the Willamette River, other cancer patients can find the power to heal.
Hall also wants to prove that the Willamette is not as dirty as people think.
Most parts of the Willamette River are really wild and beautiful, and we dont see any of it, Hall said.
A couple of professional kayakers will guide Hall out of Eugene where the first 30 miles of current are the most treacherous. He says theyre a little worried, but he has partnered with the Willamette Riverkeepers to ensure its safe for even a guy like me.
Hall fears little.
I guess you have to love being outdoors, but I always have, he said.
Leaving Kansas behind
When the 54-year-old dropped the bomb on his physician Dr. Januario Castro at University of California San Diego that he planned to swim approximately three marathons a day for three weeks from Eugene to the confluence of the Columbia River, Hall said, He thought it was pretty crazy.
Hall named his fundraising campaign Swimming in Miracles because he said its a miracle hes alive and swimming.
More importantly, I believe all of us are swimming in miracles. What we have to do is dive in and notice.
Last August, Hall wasnt doing well.
A string of unfortunate events left him floating hopelessly in a life he no longer recognized.
In 2007, Hall was diagnosed with leukemia.
In 2010, he lost his wife to brain cancer 15 days before their 30th wedding anniversary.
In 2012, his depressed immune system caused the leukemia in his body to come back with a vengeance, bringing with it non-Hodgkin small cell lymphoma.
Broken and lost, Hall left behind life as he knew it in Kansas, closed shop on his once-thriving private practice and moved home to Gresham.
It took him a year and three months to get a new therapist license and open a new practice in the Kohler building of downtown Gresham.
I was sad, my health was gone, I didnt have my work, he said.
As he struggled to get back on his feet, Hall tried to remember who he was.
The son and grandson of Mazama mountain climbers grew up in Gresham and was active his whole life, playing soccer, climbing in the Gorge, hiking the Cascades and competing in triathlons.
After graduating from David Douglas High School, the highly-recruited defender toured Europe before following a soccer scholarship to Kansas, where he fell in love with a girl, married, raised a daughter and started his own private practice.
Ever since he was a kid, Hall said, I wanted to swim the English Channel.
In the summer of 1984, Hall was back from college in Gresham when he found himself standing over the Willamette River instead.
The thought bubbled in his mind: How cool would it be to swim the length of his hometown river? No ones ever done it, and I would be the first, he said.
Swimming to survive
The first time Hall dove into a pool after he was diagnosed with leukemia, he caught pneumonia. I knew it was pretty risky, but quite honestly, I didnt care, Hall said.
Hall is against doing any kind of chemotherapy.
The research with chemo isnt good in terms of life expectancy and long-term effects on the bodys organs, he said.
When his lymph nodes swelled, he preferred to go on a 40-mile bike ride.
Hall said the more he started swimming, the stronger he got and the better he felt.
He tracked his progress in his English Channel diary, until he set his first benchmark last November. One full mile 36 laps in the pool without stopping.
At that time it felt like a big deal for a guy with two cancers, Hall said.
As he began to consider swimming more seriously, Hall thought about reorienting his English Channel dream closer to home and his heart.
Thats when it hit me I can swim the Willamette, he said. His efforts would go to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to raise money for other people suffering with a blood cancer.
In February, Hall began training for the Willamette swim right here in Gresham, pounding out laps in the pool at Cascade Athletic Club.
Now 36 laps is one of my short swims, he said. Its not unusual for Hall to do 180 laps, around 5 miles in the pool. Its amazing to me. There will be times I will be swimming and laughing, because Ive been so sick!
Now Hall says hes about as strong as hes ever been.
One of the hardest parts of swimming miles upon miles of monotonous laps wasnt the physical challenge, Hall said.
When you get to a certain point, the physical aspect isnt that hard, he said, but mentally its hard.
Imagine swimming six laps, and then dwelling on the fact that you have 180 more to go.
Instead of suffering through it, Hall said, Ive just learned to enjoy it and have a good time.
Learning to stay in the present moment has translated over to his life. Not much can rattle me anymore, he said.
A cold handshake with the Willamette
Hall has been swimming portions of the river once or twice a week since the early spring.
Mid-April, Hall took his first dip in the river at Independence, southwest of Salem.
With his endurance built up, Hall had been working to climatize his body for the cold water by taking long ice showers and ice baths.
Hall said he gets his tenacity from his father, a man who ran marathons around the world and climbed almost every mountain in the northwest. Hes the one who taught me how to be mentally tough, Hall said.
But that day the water temperature still hovered at 41 degrees and Hall wasnt wearing a wetsuit.
Typically Hall said he can handle cold (hes swam in Crater Lake), but this time despite having prepared himself he said It felt like ice water.
Only in the water for 20 minutes, his lungs and throat started to constrict and he felt hypothermia begin to set in.
The following week, Hall was back in the river, only this time he was wearing a wetsuit, donated by Portlands Athletes Lounge, which he will wear for the swim.
Hall anticipates the water temperature to be in the mid to high 50s or 60s.
Swim is not a race
Hall said the 184-mile swim is not a race.
This is called a staged swim, kind of like a Tour de France.
His blood counts are so good right now, Hall said he has full support of his doctor to do the swim.
Swimming 10 to 12 miles a day, he will stop when he wants to eat or warm up and get back in.
Along with his dad, the president of a Eugene kayaking and canoe club, and a fellow kayaker will help guide Hall out of Eugene and the rest of the trip, likely with other river safety and patrol boats hovering nearby.
He plans to be in the water from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. At night, he will stay in hotels and document the swim for followers on his Facebook blog, Swimming in Miracles.
Hall, who has a 21-year-old daughter, said he has few fears of the water, except for one scary encounter with a sea lion.
Other swimmers can pay $10 an hour to swim behind Hall as part of the fundraiser. He anticipates that as he nears Portland, there will be quite a few.
Hes looking forward to swimming in the river, where he wont need to perform flip turns thousands of them like he does in the pool. Hall said he most loves passing through nature, in rain or shine.
On gorgeous days, you are seeing the clouds and the blue is reflected in the water, he said. You cant tell where the sky stops and the water begins.
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