Leon Petete had never had so much as a headache. He never had blurry vision. He thought he was in perfect health. To race dragsters, you have to be. Mistakes are magnified at 175 MPH.
A golf ball-size tumor in his brain was about to change Petete’s record of perfect health. But it didn’t keep him off the racetrack for long.
Almost two years ago, in the middle of the night, Petete started jerking violently in bed, waking his wife, Vicky, but staying comatose. She could tell he was in pain but she couldn’t do anything about it. Leon didn’t know what had happened when he woke up, dazed, to the sight of emergency responders in his room.
“I guess in my mind I was afraid he was having a stroke or heart attack,” Vicky said.
Responders took Leon to Mercy Hospital Ada (then Valley View), where he was given a CT scan. When doctors saw the mass growing along the center of his brain, they transferred him to the Mercy Neuroscience Institute in Oklahoma City.
For several excruciating days, the Petetes didn’t know whether the tumor was cancerous. Then came the news: The tumor was a meningioma, a type of tumor that originates from the protective sacs that surround the brain and spinal cord.
“Meningioma -- that’s the first time I’d ever had it in my vocabulary,” Leon said.
Meningiomas often are benign, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Because continued seizures meant Leon, 60, couldn’t work, he opted for surgery.
“My thought was, I’m going to be off work anyway, so I might as well get the surgery done then,” he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, brain surgery often isn’t painful because the brain has no pain receptors. Leon said he feels “greedy” for not having any discomfort after having his skull sawed open.
Leon’s day job, crisscrossing southeastern Oklahoma as a “mobile worker” for State Farm insurance, requires a valid driver’s license. Oklahoma law prohibits anyone from driving if they have ongoing seizures. State Farm placed Leon on temporary disability, where he remained for four months.
“I couldn’t drive. That’s what I do,” he said.
Leon has been with State Farm for 36 years. As impressive as that is, he has been racing for longer. To race, Leon must have a physical every two years. Seizures are a clear disqualifier when driving 175 MPH.
“If I would have had to stop racing, I don’t know what I would do. I don’t golf, fish or hunt,” he said.
Racing is a family sport for the Petetes. They spend most weekends traveling around the region to racetracks, and Leon tinkers with his dragster in his free time. His 29-year-old daughter started racing when she was 10 in a junior-league miniature dragster.
The adrenaline rush is alluring, but what Leon would miss the most about racing is the camaraderie. He has been competing against many of the same drivers for decades. They have become a second family, and they were there for him when he had his surgery.
“We’ve grown up together, you could say,” he said.
Unbeknownst to Vicky at the time, Leon drove a racetrack once while he was recovering. Other than that, he stayed off the track until he was better. She wouldn’t let him near it otherwise.
“It was our responsibility to care about other people,” she said.
Looking back, Leon and Vicky feel blessed that they had so much love and support among their friends. They attribute his recovery to the strength of their faith. Still, it’s not always easy to know how to talk to God during a crisis. The couple prayed that they were following God’s plan and committed to honor God and remain faithful no matter the outcome of Leon’s situation.
“Sometimes you don’t know what to pray,” Vicky said.
The couple remains impressed that Mercy’s electronic health record allowed responders and doctors in Oklahoma City to immediately access his health history and medication list from his Mercy Clinic physician in Ada.
“The portability of the medical records I thought was really impressive,” he said.
“All that information was immediately sent to Oklahoma City. The whole experience made us really excited that the Ada hospital was going to be a Mercy facility within a few months,” Vicky added.
“You just step back and pray, and hope everything goes well. You’re in the hands of the right doctors and the right facilities,” Leon said.
Leon has been tumor-free for two years and has a brain MRI every six months. No matter what, the Petetes will be ready.
“Leon is one of those people, he handles what has to happen,” Vicky said.
Mercy neurosurgeon Dr. Eric Friedman, who removed Leon’s tumor, said the outlook for meningioma patients typically is good, but it depends on where the tumor is located. In Leon’s case, the tumor was beginning to touch his brain, which set off the seizures. This is a common way patients find out they have meningioma.
“It just irritates the brain,” Friedman explained.
Even after the tumor has been removed, a person can still have the seizures.
“The chance goes way down and usually in a couple of years a neurologist will take people off seizure medications,” Friedman said.
In fact, Petete went for his two-year check-up with Friedman April 23. He expects to be taken off his seizure medications.