Success Story: Robert "Mitch" Rice

A man using a fork lift to move a large bolder

Cancer survivor Is back at work with a little help from his friends

Robert Rice, known as "Mitch" to friends, was not worried when he went to the hospital in Feb. 2006 for throat surgery to treat a common type of squamous cell cancer.

"Mitch figured he'd be off work a couple of days and get right back to it," said Connie Ketcham, Mitch's sweetheart of 16 years, "but that's when things began to really go wrong."

Rice had a severe allergic reaction to Heparin, an injectable anticoagulant prescribed before surgery to dissolve an arterial clot. As a result, doctors and nurses at OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City worked around the clock to treat him for a series of medical emergencies. In addition to the laryngectomy surgery to remove his voice box, Rice had a heart attack, suspected stroke, kidney failure, impaired circulation and lapsed into a nine-day coma.

Unable to speak because of the surgery, Rice woke up long enough to pantomime cutting with scissors to give doctors permission to amputate his left leg, ending excruciating pain and the impact of infection on the rest of his body.

"When I came to again and my leg was gone, it didn't bother me too bad," Rice said. "One of my best friends, Harold Hughart from Siatook, has a leg gone, and he gets around great. I thought, 'If he can do it, I can do it too, and I'm going to do it too.'"

Rice's determination along with the special brand of humor he shares with Ketcham had already gotten them through some tough times.

Rice's brother Steve passed away in May 2005 with the same form of throat cancer. Ketcham herself recently survived lung cancer, beating a terminal diagnosis and undergoing debilitating treatments.

"Mitch had to watch his brother," Ketcham said. "Then he had to watch me, and came close to knocking on heaven's gate himself, but we couldn't take ourselves down because then you lose, and we both wanted to be winners."

A pipeline welder's helper by trade, Rice was eager to return to a new job as a skid steerer operator and stone mason working on million dollar homes at Cross Timbers Marina and Estates on Lake Skiatook. Although he had been building retaining walls and landscape features for only three months, Rice knew his help was needed to get back on schedule after heavy spring rains suspended construction work.

Meanwhile, Rice grew bored at home and tried to mow the lawn in his wheelchair before Ketcham intervened. He was more than ready to get back to work, but lacked the insurance needed to get a prosthetic leg and an internal communication device.

Rice and Ketcham met Kay Hicks, a vocational rehabilitation counselor from Tulsa at the state Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS) in April 2006. Rice and Hicks immediately had something in common – both were using wheelchairs. In order to talk with her, Rice had to cover the hole in his throat with his thumb.

As the employment agency for Oklahomans with disabilities, DRS helps thousands of Oklahomans with disabilities start new jobs each year, providing guidance and counseling and a wide range of services. The Division of Vocational Rehabilitation where Hicks works specializes in helping people like Rice get or keep jobs.

Hicks sent Rice to Jim Yount at Hanger Prosthetics on S. Sheridan in Tulsa in search of a comfortable prosthetic leg that would work on his construction job.

"I never could have afforded that leg without Kay," Rice said. "She's good people. You're not just a case number with her. You're a person."

"Besides, we could always make her laugh," Ketcham added.

Voice Pathologist Tracy Grammar from the OU Health Sciences Center worked with Dr. Jesus Medina to get Rice a tracheal esophageal prosthesis so he could talk through his esophagus.

One week after he got the new leg, Mitch Rice was back in the caterpillar moving rocks.

"Idle hands are the devil's workshop," he explained. "It's true of the mind too. If you're out working, you're not dragging yourself through the mud."

Shortly after returning to work, Rice was recruited for a new position at Crosstimbers Marina with additional landscaping responsibilities.

Both cancer survivors now, Rice and Ketcham still spend time together in doctor's offices. Neither has ever gone without the other.

They are helping to raise Ketcham's granddaughter, Tamara, and keep up with all of her activities. Once a month or so, they drop by the Bank Lounge, a country dancing spot in Sperry, to visit friends and sing a little karaoke. Both Rice and Ketcham agree that now is the time to have a little fun.

"Laughter helps a lot in the healing process," Ketcham replied. "You're not depressed because it releases serotonin in the brain."

"You got to have the will and the stamina to keep going," Rice said. "We like to find somebody that's a little depressed and lift them up, make them laugh, for just five minutes.

The Department of Rehabilitation Services' divisions of Vocational Rehabilitation and Visual Services help Oklahomans with disabilities find or keep jobs in careers of their choice. Vocational Rehabilitation serves Oklahomans with all types of disabilities, except those with visual impairments who are assisted by Visual Services. To find the nearest office, phone 800.487.4042 toll free. The number is accessible by communication devices for the deaf.