As an offensive lineman at Washington State in the late 1980s, Paul Wulff spent autumn afternoons fighting off mammoth defenders who were trying to sack his quarterback. For his efforts he earned about $8,000 a year in books, tuition and room and board.
Today, as an assistant football coach at Eastern Washington University, he spends more than that each month for someone else to play the role of protector and fight off the tiny tumor that is trying to kill his wife.
Paul and Tammy Wulff have spent close to $100,000 on a radical alternative form of cancer treatment not covered by their insurance. But money, Wulff insists, cannot be a consideration when the life of his wife of four years is at stake.
“I’ll just live in debt until I die; I have no problem with that,” said the 30-year-old Woodland, Calif., native who was a three-year WSU letterwinner and starter on the Cougars’ 1988 Aloha Bowl championship team. “I’m not driven by money. If I was, I wouldn’t be in coaching. I need friendships and family more than dollars, so we’ll make do. We’ll find a way.”
After suffering through nearly six months of debilitating headaches and blurred vision that a local physician’s assistant insisted were the effects of migraines, Tammy Wulff was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer in early January. Her local doctor recommended radiation treatments, noting they help 70 percent of patients with cancers similar to hers live five years or longer.
Neither Tammy nor Paul liked those odds, so with the help of family members, they scoured the Internet in search of another course of action. They settled on a controversial treatment devised by Stanislaw Burzynski, a Houston-based doctor who has been the subject of several unflattering television news magazine features and vast criticism from the mainstream medical community.
The treatment, which involves massive and nearly constant doses of experimental drugs that Burzynski claims can sometimes reverse a cancer’s growth trends, comes without a guarantee. But Tammy, in her monthly travels to the Burzynski Clinic in Houston, has been introduced to former cancer patients who claim to have been cured by Burzynski’s treatment.
“The idea is that the cancer will eat the drugs and die,” explained Tammy, 34, a former aerobics instructor who still works during the day as a vocational consultant for Crawford & Company. “They didn’t offer me any guarantees, but we started the treatment in February and to date the cancer has stopped growing.”
Tammy estimated the start-up costs of the treatment, which includes the purchase of a small, portable computer that measures and disperses the correct dosage of drugs through a chest catheter, at around $10,000. Each return trip to Houston costs $7,000 for treatment and a new supply of drugs. Air fare, motel room, meals and a rental car are extra.
“It’s really adding up,” Tammy admitted.
“But we’re finding a way through the unbelievable help we’ve gotten from family and friends all over the country,” added Paul. “I’m humbled by the generosity of people and their concern over our situation.”
Tammy’s mother, Catherine, set up a benevolent fund to help pay her daughter’s expenses and organized a benefit golf tournament and auction on the west side of the state. Local friends will hold another auction Saturday at one of the Sta-Fit Racquet & Athletic Clubs where Tammy used to work.
In addition, friends have donated airline miles to help pay for plane tickets, rental cars and hotel rooms. At a recent EWU booster luncheon, Eagles head coach Mike Kramer collected over $500 in donations from concerned boosters.
Still, these are depressing times for the Wulffs, who have been forced to put all future plans, including those of starting a family, on hold.
“The idea of kids is out of the question indefinitely,” Tammy said. “It would be horrible in a few years if this somehow goes away to plan a family and then have it come back.”
Trips and vacations are also on hold because of financial strains.
But the hardest part, Tammy said, is “when you really do remember what you’ve got and realize where you really might be headed.
“Sometimes I just think, ‘If you’re going to take me, just do it now. Let’s get this over with.’ Life just looks different and it’s hard to explain to people why. If you don’t have cancer and you’re not technically dying, you just don’t know.”
Tammy said because of past reports of what her treatment has achieved in other cancer patients, she is proceeding on the assumption that she can beat the disease that has robbed her of much of her once-boundless energy and cherished independence.
“But somewhere in the back of my head, I have this horrible feeling I’ll probably have to eventually resort to radiation,” she added.
Paul remains optimistic that the treatment might, at least, contain the cancer until a more conventional non-operative cure can be found.
Wulff, too, has suffered physically from Tammy’s condition. He has lost a considerable amount of weight and was suffering from stress-induced abdominal pain while trying to balance his coaching duties with Tammy’s considerable needs at the onset of her disease.
“It’s taken a toll on my body, too,” he admitted. “For the first three months I didn’t hesitate making every move for her, 24 hours a day. I cooked every meal, washed every piece of clothing, cleaned every dish and never thought twice about it.”
In addition, Paul would help Tammy ice her legs at night when she was suffering pain from the steroids she was taking. And he would carry her to the bathroom nearly once an hour.
“He’s been really incredible,” Tammy said of her husband, who she met in the fall of 1988 during her second year of graduate school at WSU. “He took over all the housework, paid all the bills and did everything I used to do.
“And never once has he faltered. Never once has he acted like we weren’t going to make it.”
Wulff said he struggled with his coaching duties during the spring, but added he is once again enjoying his job now that Tammy can do more things on her own.
Kramer insists Wulff has shown few signs of his personal struggles on the practice field.
“He’s been very even-keeled, even-tempered and unemotional about it on the practice field,” Kramer said. “He’s been as instructive as ever and as thorough and competent as ever - maybe even more so.
“Only Paul knows how dark the days have been. As a personal friend I know he’s had days when he’s struggled, but it hasn’t affected him on a professional level at all.”
Unfortunately, this is not the first time tragedy has visited Wulff. His mother, Delores, mysteriously disappeared when he was 12 years old. She has not been heard from since.
There was speculation among family members that Delores Wulff was murdered by her husband, Carl. Wulff, who has not seen his father in almost nine years, buys into that theory.
He remembers his father’s drinking binges and the constant barrage of verbal threats that were leveled at his mother, a loving, caring person who always had time to play with and listen to her children.
“Knowing my mom, she was a country gal who absolutely loved her kids,” he recalled. “She would never have just left us. She would never have left me.
“Plus, we didn’t live in an environment where there was a lot of foul play. We lived out in the country, where you just don’t disappear in the middle of the night with no one around and the car still in the driveway.”
Police investigated Delores Wulff’s disappearance and questioned her husband. But her body was never found and no charges were filed.
Looking back, Wulff places his wife’s battle against cancer on the same tragic level.
“There are two days in my life, in terms of horror, that stick out,” he explained. “The day I heard that my mother disappeared and the day I found out about Tammy.”
In the case of his mother, there was initial hope that she might return.
“For three, four, even five years after she disappeared,” Wulff said. “But realistically, even though I was only 12, I started to realize after a couple of months that things didn’t look good.”
Wulff finds himself in much the same position today. Realistically, in the case of his wife, he realizes that things don’t look good.
But with a lot of help from their friends, Paul and Tammy Wulff might find reason - along with an opportunity - to hold out hope for three, four, even five more years.
And then, who knows?
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Benefit auction Friends of Tammy and Paul Wulff will hold a silent auction of donated sports-related items Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon in the South gymnasium of the Sta-Fit Racquet & Athletic Club at 5505 S. Regal St. Proceeds from the auction will be used to help defray the cost of uninsured cancer treatments for Tammy, a former Sta-Fit aerobics instructor who has been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Tammy’s husband, Paul, a former Washington State University football player, is currently the offensive line coach at Eastern Washington University. Among the items to be auctioned are tickets to WSU football and basketball games and Spokane Chiefs games; a pair of 100-level tickets to the Seattle Seahawks upcoming home game against Kansas City; tuition to basketball and football camps at WSU and EWU; a 3-month Sta-Fit family membership, a Spa Paradiso gift certificate and golf at the Coeur d’ Alene Resort Golf Course. The auction will also include autographed items from professional golfer Tiger Woods, Seattle Mariner stars Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez, University of Washington football players Brock Huard and Jason Chorak and WSU quarterback Ryan Leaf. Steve Bergum