Raptors' Rodriguez is back on the iceLess than a year after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, East Ridge senior defenseman Emilio Rodriguez is back on the ice with the Raptors.
By: Patrick Johnson, Staff Writer, Woodbury Bulletin
After a recent East Ridge boys hockey game, one in which the Raptors happened to lose, senior defenseman Emilio Rodriguez was still smiling.
It’s not that he doesn’t care if his team wins or loses — nothing could be further from the truth.
However, less than a year after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer, just getting back on the ice is a bigger win for him.
In early March, Jim Rodriguez noticed some swelling on his son Emilio’s throat and decided they should go get it checked out.
The news wasn’t good.
At age 17, Emilio had thyroid cancer and would need to undergo surgery and treatment in order to save his life.
“It hit me out of nowhere,” Emilio said. “I didn’t know how to react. At first I just tried to ignore it until the day I had to go to surgery, then it hit me that this is actually happening.”
After the school year ended, in early June, Emilio underwent a seven-and-a-half hour surgery at United Hospital in St. Paul, in which the doctors removed his thyroid gland and surrounding cancerous tissue.
Three weeks later, he was back in the gym, training up to five days a week to get back on the ice for his senior season. Just over a month after that, he was lacing up his skates once again and playing the sport he loves.
This season, Rodriguez has played in all seven of the Raptors’ games and has registered one point from his spot on the blue line.
“This is probably the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Emilio said. “Just being back to my regular schedule and doing the things I love to do. It’s a lot of fun. The rink is like my second home. Every time I came to the ice I felt better. I was just really glad to be around my friends, which helped me out a lot too.”
There are about 37,000 new cases of thyroid cancer each year in the U.S., according to the National Cancer Institute, and most thyroid cancers are very curable, especially in young people.
Along with surgery, Emilio needed to undergo radiation therapy delivered by taking radioactive iodine pills. He will need to take thyroid hormone pills for the rest of his life in order to replace what his glands used to do and he also needs to follow a strict, salt-free, diet.
“His attitude was positive from the get-go,” Jim Rodriguez said. “We all felt pretty strong about our faith and that everything would be alright and it has been. Everything looks very positive right now. He should be good to go.”
Emilio said his desire to play hockey again helped inspire him during his recovery.
“That was his No. 1 goal,” Jim Rodriguez said. “He told me to help him do everything I could do to get him back on the ice. The team, the school and hockey have been his savior. It didn’t let him think about it too much. As parents we always thought about it. But, his mind was focused on something else.”
Even though Emilio’s will to return to the ice was strong, he wasn’t certain he would be able to return to his regular playing form in time for the season.
“Because of how bad I was at first I didn’t think I’d be able to get back,” Emilio said. “But, I put my mind to it, kept my feet moving and looking forward. I did not want to miss my senior year. That was very important to me.
“At first it was tough. Trying to skate was bad. My feet were bad and my hands and everything was weak. It was even really hard for me to talk. But, then I finally got stronger and things started to click. I feel pretty good now. I’m a lot stronger than I was before.”
Jim Rodriguez said Emilio has a big heart, which has helped during this tough stretch.
“He loves to play the game,” Jim said. “I think without hockey it would have been a challenge. But, playing again was just something he had to do. The doctors and his therapists thought he’d bounce back just fine, but they have said they are amazed by his recovery.”
East Ridge head coach Doug Long said he feels Emilio is right back where he left off last season.
“At first I was just concerned about his health and wasn’t even thinking about if he’d be back or not,” Long said. “But, after checking in to it a little more, this was a diagnosis that actually has a pretty good prognosis. Of all the cancers a person can get, this was one of those that had a pretty good rate of recovery, and he’s a tough kid, but I’m a bit surprised that he’s back to where he was last year. All things considered, it’s pretty remarkable, especially when you think about the major work that the doctors did and here he is competing on the varsity stage and holding his own.”
Most hockey players will tell you they wear their scars like a badge of honor. But, none will argue that Emilio’s six-inch scar running from just under his jawbone to his Adam’s apple is even more meaningful.
“It put things into a different perspective about what was really important,” Jim Rodriguez said. “Sometimes winning and losing these games are important, but the thing that’s most important is that the kids are out there skating and having fun. Fortunately he’s able to be here doing that. We’re blessed because of that.”