After receiving a devastating diagnosis, Bob Czarniecki was shocked to hear a familiar name listed among the neurosurgeons who could help treat the cancer that had metastasized to his brain.
The name was Dr. Morgan Stuart, who was just as surprised to learn that his beloved childhood soccer coach soon would become his patient.
Youth coaches carry the tremendous responsibility of helping develop and shape children’s lives. Dr. Stuart was presented with an opportunity to express his gratitude for the impact Czarniecki had on him.
“You don’t often get a chance to thank such a prominent figure from your childhood, like a coach, in such a meaningful way as an adult,” Dr. Stuart said.
On the field
Czarniecki first started coaching at the James Island Soccer Club in the late 1980s when his son expressed interest in playing, and the team was lacking a coach.
“I knew nothing about it,” Czarniecki said. “I had never even played soccer. But I decided I’d step up and do it anyway.”
He dedicated himself entirely to the game, attending coaching classes and even joining an adult league to better understand the players’ perspectives. Soccer games, weekly practices, team meetings and field maintenance consumed his time.
Becoming state champs
Dr. Stuart had been playing soccer at the James Island Soccer Club since the age of 7, and he was only 10 when Czarniecki took up the mantle of coach. A close bond developed between Dr. Stuart and Czarniecki’s son during this time.
“I have so many great memories of Bob as a coach,” Dr. Stuart said. “Our team may not have been the most technically skilled, but we had heart. And Bob was the soul of our team.”
Dr. Stuart noted that, as an adult with children of his own, he has newfound appreciation for the time Czarniecki devoted to the team.
“It’s easy to underappreciate the degree to which a coach can impact you as a developing person, instilling certain values in you,” Dr. Stuart said.
Despite being a team of underdogs, they clinched the state championship two years in a row for their age group, a victory etched in both their memories.
“We had no business winning that championship,” Dr. Stuart said. “We beat teams that had beat the snot out of us during the regular season. But we won, and I still remember it as an incredible triumph.”
Decades passed before Dr. Stuart and Czarniecki reconnected. Dr. Stuart left to pursue higher education, earning a bachelor’s degree from Duke University and a medical degree from The John’s Hopkins University School of Medicine. He and his wife returned to the Charleston area in 2011 to be close to their families, where he began his tenure with Roper St. Francis Healthcare.
“Do you believe in divine guidance?” Czarniecki asked.
Czarniecki’s battle with cancer began in 2013 with a diagnosis of melanoma. His situation worsened five years later when the cancer metastasized to his lungs.
He was referred to Oncologist Dr. David Ellison, who prescribed immunotherapy, which had just been approved by the FDA six weeks prior to the discovery of the spots on his lungs.
The treatment has proved to be extremely effective in treating metastatic melanoma, Dr. Ellison said.
“Bob’s remarkable story is one of many I have witnessed since the approval of immunotherapy,” Dr. Ellison said. “Studies now show that immunotherapy cures 35-40 percent of people with metastatic melanoma.”
But three days after his first dose of immunotherapy, his wife noticed that something was off.
“She thought I was having a stroke,” Czarniecki said. “Because I was doing strange things around the house. I just wasn’t being myself.”
Dr. Ellison met them at the emergency room and ordered CT scans of Czarniecki’s head, which showed severe inflammation. An MRI of his head confirmed their worst fears.
The cancer had metastasized to his brain.
“When you’re told you have some spots on your lungs, that’s one thing,” Czarniecki said. “But when they tell you that you have something in your brain, that’s a new ballgame.”
A surgeon’s trust and care
When presented with the option of Dr. Stuart as his neurosurgeon, Czarniecki’s confidence was unwavering.
“I knew he went to school to be a physician,” Czarniecki said. “But when I realized he had gone to be a neurosurgeon I thought, ‘Wow, that is the top of the top.’”
Czarniecki had two tumors on his brain – one in his frontal lobe and the other in his cerebellum.
“When he arrived in my office, I didn’t think of him as a coach anymore,” Dr. Stuart said. “He became my patient.”
One tumor was small and able to be treated with radiation, Dr. Stuart said. The other was near the surface of the brain, a favorable location for surgery.
Legacy and continuity
Dr. Stuart’s expertise would guide him through successful brain surgery, ultimately leading to Czarniecki’s recovery. The procedure went well and Czarniecki was able to go home the next day.
Regular updates between Drs. Stuart and Ellison, along with rigorous treatments, culminated in Czarniecki’s cancer remaining at bay, fostering a renewed sense of hope and gratitude.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a coach as “one who instructs players in the fundamentals of a sport and directs team strategy.”
Looking back on his childhood, Dr. Stuart sees his former coach as a profound influence in developing his life strategy to ultimately heal others. His coach, meanwhile, remains amazed and grateful that the young player on his soccer team would later enter his life in such a profound way.
“He has always been dedicated to everything he does,” Czarniecki said. “That’s just who he is.”
The story of the soccer coach and player does not end there.
Today, Dr. Stuart’s daughter Sasha plays soccer at the James Island Soccer Club.
The tradition of local recreational sports will carry on, and no doubt, lifelong bonds with others will be made.
“It gives me a good feeling knowing that the club is a place for traditions that we can carry on,” Dr. Stuart said. “With institutions like Roper St. Francis Healthcare and the James Island Soccer Club in our community, we’re able to establish connections and roots that span generations.”