Charles and Charlie: A story of coping with brain cancer

UAB cancer patient Charles Turk fights a hard battle with a brain tumor, with the help of a loving family and a rare deer.

This is the story of a very tough man. It is also one of despair, hope and a loving family coping with a deadly disease. It is the amazing journey of Charles Turk and a rare piebald fawn called Charlie.

Charles Turk is a patient at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). In June of 2012, he was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, the most malignant form of brain cancer. Turk was a hardworking veteran of more than 40 years in the steel mills. He and his wife Gail raised three boys.

Turk was 77 when doctors at UAB confirmed he had a brain tumor.

“His tumor was deep and extended into what is called the insula, which is around the area of the middle cerebral artery — one of the major blood vessels of the brain,” said UAB neurosurgeon James Markert, M.D., Ph.D. “It’s a tricky area to operate in because of the small but critical blood vessels and proximity to some important pathways that control movement on the left side of the body.”

The family’s first decision was where to go for treatment. They gathered in the barn on the North Alabama deer farm owned by Charles’ son Terry.

“We had a lot going on in that barn,” said Tim Turk, Charles’s middle son. “We went back and forth because Johns Hopkins was on the table, then UAB.”

“It doesn’t take long when you start researching glioblastoma to know what you are facing,” said youngest son Mark Turk. “When we looked at it all, UAB’s research strength meant we could get cutting-edge treatment there, and it was just an hour down the road, so family would be nearby.”

At that same farm where the family leaned on each other and made big decisions, a piebald deer, later named Charlie after Charles Turk, was born the day the family learned that Charles would be able to have surgery at UAB.

“When we looked at it all, UAB’s research strength meant we could get cutting-edge treatment there, and it was just an hour down the road, so family would be nearby.”

Piebald deer are white, with some splotches of brown. They are rare because white deer are not likely to survive in the wild, and they tend to have health issues. Charlie was sick, so he spent his first weeks at the veterinarian.

As for Charles, Markert performed the surgery to remove his tumor at UAB in June.

“We chose to do what’s called an awake craniotomy, where we put the patient to sleep during the first part of the surgery, then later wake them up somewhat when we have the brain exposed,” said Markert.

The surgical team applies electric current to areas of the brain around the tumor, checking the patient’s response. No activity means it is a safe area of tumor to remove. But if the patient responds and moves a finger or leg, the surgeons know they are too close to an important neural pathway.

The same day Charles was released from UAB after successful surgery, Charlie came home to the pasture from the veterinarian. In the months that followed, both Charles and Charlie had their ups and downs.

“The deer and my dad have been on the same pace through the whole course,” said Terry Turk.

Terry said Charlie’s veterinarian recommended a certain type of canned pumpkin pie filling as an aid for digestion. After his wife bought the product, Terry stopped by his dad’s house and found the same product sitting on the table.

“I asked if that was the can we’d bought for the deer,” Terry said. “My mom said it wasn’t. The doctor suggested it for Dad, as he was having problems digesting his food. We keep a close eye on the deer, and Dad often asks how the deer is doing. He feels like if the deer is having a good day, he should be having a good day.”

The good days are tempered with bad ones for Charles Turk. The tumor had been removed, but some cancer cells – those too close to important pathways – had to be left behind. Charles was a candidate for a cutting-edge multi-center trial, in which UAB was one participating site. The trial used a patient’s own DNA to create a vaccine against the tumor. Early trial results indicate the vaccine might be able to dramatically extend survival rates.

“There are indications that glioblastoma will lend itself to what we term personalized medicine,” said Markert. “We are learning more and more about the unique mutations in the DNA of these tumors, and that’s helping us design medications and therapies that will be individualized for specific patients.”

Turk was a candidate for the UAB vaccine trial, but a blood clot was discovered in his lung moments before white blood cells could be harvested to make the vaccine. That put him back in the hospital and kept him out of the trial. Charles, ever the fighter, persevered.

In the fall, Charles was allowed on the field during warm-ups at UAB home football games to see his grandson, Jay, a freshman walk-on. A highlight for the family, and particularly Charles, was an RV trip to New Orleans for UAB’s game against Tulane.

“It made me feel great,” said Charles. “Looking at my grandson and my sons, it made me feel that, over the years, I’ve produced something worthwhile. I’m the luckiest human living on Earth.”

His sons might disagree – on the grounds that they hold that title.

“I’ll always look up to him,” said Terry. “He’s not just my dad, he’s my best friend. We’ve hunted together, he’s been my coach and he’s been there for me in everything I’ve ever had to do. I put him up there as the world’s greatest dad.”

“When I was playing little league baseball, I wasn’t very good at first,” recalled Mark. “Dad would work a double at the steel mill and come home to throw to me – and throw, and throw – until his ball hit my bat. And he wouldn’t stop until he felt I was confident, and I was ready to go. It might not sound very deep, but it meant the world to me as a nine-year-old kid struggling out on the field.”

In February, 2013, Charles was back in UAB Hospital, fighting off an attack of pneumonia. Again, he persevered. In April, as the one year anniversary of his diagnosis loomed, Charles was home, comfortable and pain free.

“He still thinks he’s going to live to be a hundred,” said Tim. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.”

“I checked on the deer the other night and saw that Charlie is doing fine,” said Terry. “Now, Dad is getting better, too. He’s going to keep on fighting.”