There is finally light at the end of a long, dark tunnel with surgery scheduled in July for University of Maine women’s basketball coach Richard Barron.
But it wasn’t long ago that Barron thought he was going to die.
In early December, he developed hearing loss as well as having noises amplified. There were balance issues along with tingling, numbness and temporary paralysis in his extremities and debilitating migraines and tremors. He also experienced temporary amnesia.
“I thought about what [dying] would do to my family,” Barron, 48, said Tuesday. “I was so upset at myself for not increasing my life insurance.”
“The closest way I could describe it is that it was like being severely concussed,” he said. “There were all sorts of things going on in my head. It was like having to navigate a minefield. When I took a step, it sounded like an earthquake. There was a big bass drum going off in my head. It was really scary.”
His balance also was compromised. “I would wind up walking into walls. I was disoriented.”
“I had been so used to being in control and making decisions. All of a sudden, I was powerless,” Barron said.
The fear of the unknown was daunting and frustrating.
On Jan. 6, nearly a month after his first episode with his condition, he announced he was going out on medical leave and associate head coach Amy Vachon would serve as the interim head coach.
Three months later, he announced that his illness would prohibit him from coaching next season. Vachon will continue as the interim head coach.
He still hadn’t received a definite diagnosis, but that all changed six weeks ago.
Seeking a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida — he had already been to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota — he engaged in a long conversation with an audiologist on a Wednesday morning and she had a good idea what it was and recommended that he undergo a CT scan.
He was returning to Maine early Friday morning.
They did the CT scan Thursday, and she called him back with the news he had been waiting to hear for nearly five months.
“There was a small hole, the size of a pin, right below the brain,” he explained. “It is rare and has only been diagnosed for 20 years.”
“That was a pivotal moment,” Barron said. “I called [UMaine athletic director Karlton Creech]. I was giddy. I was so happy. I told him I had a hole in my head!”
He will fly to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles and have the hole filled in on July 13.
The procedure is called a craniotomy.
“They are going to cut into my skull and make a paste out of the residue from it and use that to fill in the hole,” Barron said.
“It’s like doing a spackle job on the side of a house,” Barron, who has three children with wife Maureen, said.
He will spend two weeks in Los Angeles and he said it will take “six to eight weeks to readjust. The brain will have to relearn how it hears things.”
He had undergone over 150 blood tests. The list of possible ailments was endless and included a brain tumor, a viral infection, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and early onset Alzheimer’s.
“I just wanted an answer. Tell me what I have, and I’ll deal with it,” Barron, who speculated the anxiety from not knowing probably made things worse, said.
Now he says he is “lightyears better than I was in April,” thanks to the fact his anxiety has been significantly reduced by the diagnosis and an optimistic outlook.
At various stages, it was challenging just leaving his bed to go to the bathroom due to the various symptoms, including neuropathy. He also is dealing with a herniated disk in his back.
He took a number of medications that had side effects such as substantial weight gain.
He would be able to walk for about five minutes, but he can now walk for 45 minutes. He sees an acupuncturist, a chiropractor and a neurologist and he is still on medications.
“And I’ve felt good driving the past four weeks,” he said.
He said craniotomies for his type of ailment have had a good success rate.
“Some patients still have the symptoms after the surgery, but they are better,” Barron said.
“It’s not going to completely solve all things. I’ll still have to deal with neurological issues. But it gets me on the right track and will allow me to continue to improve,” Barron said.
He has kept in constant contact with Vachon and was proud of the job she did in leading the team to the America East championship game.
He said his decision to step down and turn the program over to Vachon was “very healthy for me” because it enabled him to concentrate on his condition.
Having Vachon take over the program is a transition he hoped would take place eventually, anyway, he said.
“I’d be very happy seeing her being the head coach at Maine,” Barron said.
Five players transferred after the season but Barron said that “seems to be an epidemic [across the country] and each [transfer] has their own different story.”
But he quickly pointed out that the players who were coming in for next season are still coming, Vachon has been able to bring in some more players to fill the void and the “returning players are talented.”
He said the outpouring of support has been “very humbling and very touching. I’ve received tons of cards and letters even from people I don’t know.”
Barron isn’t sure if he will ever return to coaching. If he doesn’t, he has prepared himself for the future.
“I’ve had a lot of fun coaching for 25 years. I’ve had a lot of gratifying moments. I’ve looked at the idea of reinventing myself,” Barron, who transformed UMaine from a cellar-dweller to a perennial America East contender in his five-plus seasons, said.