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Miracles at Hoag Family Cancer Institute

Life Distrupted

In the fall of 2017, Jason Hartert was a busy college student diligently working to earn his degree from California State University, Long Beach with the ultimate goal of becoming a criminal science investigator. But he began experiencing moments in which he’d disconnect from reality. “I would talk to a friend, and then I wouldn’t recognize them,” he recalls.

As a kid growing up in Huntington Beach, Jason was an avid basketball and baseball player. He had his share of athletic injuries and one memorable trip to the emergency room at Hoag Hospital with a dislocated knee. These episodes were inexplicable and came out of nowhere. After the seizures became more frequent, his doctor prescribed a medication that ended up being too strong and to the point where Jason struggled to complete simple tasks, such as walking.

His mom, Dana, advised him to relax and take it easy, thinking this was anxiety. But the episodes got worse. When Dana and her husband, Mike, took Jason to their family physician, they were advised to get an MRI, just in case.  They didn’t know it at the time, but this advice would save Jason’s life.

The First Miracle

“We got the call from his doctor on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving that he had a brain tumor,” Dana and Mike remember. It was the longest Thanksgiving weekend their family had ever experienced.

They immediately made the rounds with doctors. One physician told them they should go to Johns Hopkins, but that wasn’t feasible for their family. Friends and family urged them to go to Hoag.

When they met Christopher Duma, M.D., F.A.C.S., program director of the Brain Tumor Program at  Hoag Family Cancer Institute (HFCI), Jason immediately felt confident with him. "His compassion as a father and expertise as a surgeon made an impression on us. He established a strong connection to Jason,” Dana says.

But Dr. Duma wasn’t in their insurance plan. She prayed for help. “And then, suddenly, he was in our plan,” she says. “I felt God was present through all of this.”

Uphill Battle

After Jason’s surgery to remove the tumor, Dr. Duma gave them the devastating news that the biopsy revealed signs of grade 3 oligodendroglioma. Jason, who was a healthy 22-year-old college student, put everything on hold for aggressive radiation and chemotherapy of the remaining 5% of the tumor that couldn’t be removed.

The next miracle was Lori Berberet, M.S., R.N., nurse navigator at HFCI.

“When she walked into Jason’s room and I saw the word cancer on her lab coat, I broke down. As a mother, you want to trade places with your child. You want to take on their suffering,” Dana says.

Dana still gets emotional when she shares all the ways Lori supported them. Navigating the many drugs needed for Jason’s treatment was impossible, and they had many problems with insurance coverage.

"Lori gave us gift cards to cover medications as part of HFCI’s Bridge Program,” Dana says, pausing as the tears come. “There were times I thought I couldn’t do it, but Lori was always there with resources, counseling and support.”

Although Jason carries himself with a level of gravitas belying his age, he also faced dark moments. “There were moments when I thought, ‘why me?,’” Jason remembers. “But I tried to stay positive and keep doing my thing.” Through the trials of treatment and recovery, he learned to appreciate the now and keep his eye on his goal.

Back on Track

Even though Jason was still very weak and needed time to recover and get his strength and health back, he returned to finish college. He spent most of 2019 interviewing for jobs and, in 2020, was hired for his dream job as a crime scene investigator for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He is one of the youngest to be hired for his position.

“I’m super thankful we received the support from Hoag,” he says.

Today, as a family, Dana, Mike, their daughter Melissa and Jason are deeply grateful to Hoag. Dana and Mike committed to make a modest monthly gift to support the HFCI Nurse Navigator Program. “This has opened my eyes to be compassionate and spread awareness of brain cancer,” Dana says. “I hope others know that they are not alone.”

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