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Placentia man with brain cancer completes Ironman triathlon

When it was over, and he had fought through the pain and the vomit and the doubt, he dropped to his knees and hugged his daughter.

He had done it for her, to send her a message that will resonate long after he’s gone.

“If I can do it, you can do it,” Jay Hewitt said with his arms around his 5-year-old at the finish line of his own personal Ironman triathlon. “Thinking about you gave me the strength to keep going.”

He wasn’t talking about the Ironman, in which he had just completed 140.6 miles of life-threatening endurance in 14 hours, 45 minutes. He was talking about life, and overcoming even the most devastating things humanity can throw at you. His daughter’s name is Hero, named for a character in Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.”

On that day, dad was the hero.

Hewitt, 39, doesn’t know how many more days he has left to inspire her.

In 2016, doctors discovered a tumor (called an astrocytoma) had wrapped its way around the center of his brain. Two surgeries later, the tumor is back. In constant pain, he is undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. At least he’s finished with the training sessions that lasted seven hours per day.

Doctors have told him he has less than a decade to live. More precisely, they are waiting to see how quickly the tumor grows. The tumor is in a delicate part of the brain called the insula, which is the brain’s emotion center. Doctors say the insula is the part that gives us our personality, makes us feel human.

That is not where you want your brain tumor to be.

“I’ve got no time to lose,” Hewitt said.

Jay Hewitt with his daughter, Hero. (Courtesy of Jay Hewitt)

New direction needed

Hewitt played guitar in a punk band.

He believed the universal young guy philosophy: “Girls are going to like me if I can play guitar,” he said.

His band, The Champions, played original songs like “Jock Off” and “D for Democracy” while Hewitt was at Yucaipa High. They were also responsible for an epic food fight at a pizza parlor.

The food fight was such a big deal, kids brought food from other restaurants. The place was crowded and people were outside pressing their faces against the windows to watch. The drummer in Hewitt’s band yelled “FOOD FIGHT,” and stuff started flying.

“There were burritos in the ceiling fans,” Hewitt said. “Then someone dumped a ranch dressing bucket on the owner’s head. The place was demolished. I had beans in my hair, pizza on my clothes.”

And eventually, he had handcuffs on his wrists.

Hewitt said his younger years were headed in the wrong direction … until “I got that gospel message” at Yucaipa First Baptist Church.

“I got a new group of friends, a new group of mentors,” Hewitt said. And a new direction.

He graduated from Hope University with a degree in biblical studies.

And a girlfriend, Natalie, who would become his wife.

“I let her beat me at air hockey,” he said of their first date.

They were married in 2003. She became an English professor, and he became a youth pastor at Friends Church in Yorba Linda and then the lead pastor. He’s currently the lead pastor at Friends Church in Orange.

Hero was born in 2015.

“‘Much Ado About Nothing’ is a redemption story,” Hewitt said.

Jay Hewitt, a pastor at Friends Church Orange, with his wife Natalie and daughter Hero at their home in Placentia. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

‘Live life to the fullest’

Hewitt was walking down a hallway at church when he had his first seizure.

“The energy started at my feet,” he said. “It went to my head.”

He had to sit down. He thought, at first, he had a panic attack. A doctor agreed. He was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.

The next day, he had two more seizures.

There was a mix-up with his first MRI results. He was sent results, but somehow the pictures of his head had been switched with a woman who had images taken of her uterus.

He asked a friend of a friend, who was a neurosurgeon, to take a look when the correct images arrived.

The neurosurgeon called him on a Sunday.

“He was very straightforward,” Hewitt said. “He said, ‘You have a brain tumor.’”

Hewitt, who has always been in such good shape, said he was “shocked” to hear his life was in danger. How delicate was the necessary surgery? Hewitt found the brain surgeon with the best reputation in  Orange County – Dr. Christopher Duma in Newport Beach. Duma told him, “I’m not the guy.”

Duma explained there were about five people in the world qualified to remove Hewitt’s tumor. One of those people is Dr. Mitchell Berger at the University of California, San Francisco.

Berger performed the first surgery in September 2017. Then Hewitt’s seizures returned.

The second surgery (in 2018) was a bit more delicate and strange. Hewitt was awake throughout the procedure, talking with Berger as he poked around in his head. Berger decided to zap the area with radiation and chemotherapy.

Even after the second surgery and the chemo, doctors found cancer cells inside Hewitt’s head, inside the insula.

Now they wait. He is not expected to live to see the start of the next decade.

“God can sustain my life for as long as He wants,” Hewitt said. “I want to live life to the fullest as long as I have it.”

Even though Jay Hewitt had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor he pursued his dream of competing in an Ironman Triathlon. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

‘Perseverance and hope’

As the clock ticks, Hewitt has decided to drop golf. He said he had planned to take up the game, but that plan has been scrapped.

He hopes to go white water rafting in Patagonia and visit Machu Picchu.

He has always like to watch the Ironman on television, so that became his ultimate bucket list test. Could he do the most difficult physical activity while his body was failing?

He started his training in August 2019 with 1 mile on the treadmill. It took him five weeks to work his way up to 2 miles.

His plan was to compete in the official Ironman challenge in Australia. He bought plane tickets for he and his family to visit Port Macquarie, where there is a koala sanctuary, in May.

Thanks to the coronavirus, that Ironman was canceled.

So was the Ironman in Santa Rosa in July.

A documentary film company (Kinetoscope Studios in London) heard about Hewitt’s pursuit and began following him as he tried to finish an Ironman before his body gave out.

“People need to hear about perseverance and hope,” he said.

Hewitt contacted the Ironman administration and they not only sanctioned his run, they sent finish line tape for him to run through.

On Oct. 9, Hewitt started in Newport Beach’s Back Bay with a 2-mile swim. Then he rode a bike to the Queen Mary in Long Beach (twice) and ended at Yorba Linda Regional Park. That’s where he started his marathon run.

His own personal course ended at his house in Placentia.

A friend built him a replica of the Ironman finish line. He had a police escort the final 10 miles.

His body started to give out near the end of the race. The stomach pain was severe. He threw up.

“There was no way I was going to give up,” he said.

His coach, Margaret Hepworth, gave him salt tablets that he kept under his tongue. That seemed to help.

There were about 150 people waiting for him at the finish line.

They had a dinner of pizza and beer waiting. He couldn’t eat.

“I was just trying not to throw up,” Hewitt said.

His wife, Natalie, is happy it’s over.

“I’ve seen his ability to psychologically endure so much,” she said. “He’s a grand-gesture person. Watching him struggle … I can’t help but fast forward to watching him struggle with the end of his life.”

There are no more seven-hour training sessions planned. Hewitt can take an afternoon nap.

“I want to be able to do normal, mundane things,” Natalie said.

And they will. Together. As long as he can.

Source: Orange County Register

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