At the plate, Kristi Colegrove found ways to stay alive.
The 1988 Rogers High graduate led the Pirates in batting average for three years, earning All-Greater Spokane League softball distinction for her gritty approach in the box.
Colegrove – known in high school as Kristi Old, a three-sport athlete who also attended North Central – is still battling.
Now, Colegrove, 50, is taking her swings at life-altering oral cancer.
Earlier this year, Colegrove had surgery to remove the accelerating, Stage 4 disease, resulting in reconstruction that altered her appearance.
The rare, 13-hour surgery included the removal of her upper mouth and nose cartilage, which was replaced by bone and muscle from her shoulder.
Surgeons cut open her neck from ear to ear, also attending to cancer in Colegrove’s lymph nodes where it had spread.
“I was swollen like a pumpkin,” Colegrove said. “I died for a few moments on the surgery table when they were putting in the port. They used Narcan to get me back.”
Three more nose surgeries followed, in which the rib from a cadaver helped give structure to Colegrove’s nasal area.
She spent nearly a year being sustained by feeding tube and, without teeth, has a hard time consuming protein-heavy foods, leading to other health issues.
Colegrove, who is now without gums, is unhappy with her looks and hopes to one day get back to her precancer appearance, but that’s not what she misses most.
“Anything that would help me chew and eat again would be great,” said Colegrove, whose throat also suffered damage from chemotherapy radiation.
That’s where Colegrove is striking out.
Because of the rare oral surgery, Colegrove can’t get standard prosthetic gums and teeth. Her mouth is no longer U-shaped, forcing her to pursue expensive rehabilitative dentures that aren’t covered by insurance.
Colegrove said she hasn’t worked in years – previous employment since her days at Rogers included jobs at the Spokane School District and Spokane County Courthouse – because of her condition. The Social Security money she receives is less than her monthly rent.
“It’s been a struggle,” she said.
Dozens of friends and family members stepped up to help in donating to GoFundMe and Facebook donation pages that have totaled nearly $5,000.
It’s not nearly enough, though.
“It’s about $30,000, but I’ll need about $20,000 to get my foot in the door with a doctor in Seattle,” Colegrove said. “Then, hopefully, I can make payments.”
Insurance covered Colegrove’s surgery and treatment, which were under the wing of Dr. Brian Mitchell and Dr. Jordan Sand of Spokane Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic.
“This is one of the worst cancer treatments to endure,” Mitchell said.
Before Mitchell, Colegrove said, several physicians dismissed her concerns of a strange feeling on the roof of her mouth, dating to 2014. She was diagnosed with mouth cancer in 2018.
“If you have a funny spot in the mouth or throat, it doesn’t set off a lot of alarms for a lot of health providers,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes rehabilitative dentures – essentially a new mouth – would be important for Colegrove’s livelihood, health and self-esteem.
Medicaid doesn’t cover most dental implants, a problem for oral cancer patients hoping to return to normalcy.
“You need to eat,” Mitchell said. “You’re prone to malnutrition and a lot of other issues, so this should also be covered (by insurance). … It’s a quirk in how health care works. You can be left hanging in the wind.
“Ideally, dental rehabilitation for oral/head and neck cancer patients would be covered by insurance similar to breast reconstruction for breast cancer patients.”
“Who knows if I’ll ever raise enough?” Colegrove said.
“I’m hopeful. I pray everyday.”
Donations can be made online at Facebook.com/donate/671005610162089
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