Monday, December 9, 2013

Cuyamaca College holds bone marrow drive for automotive instructor

It was his conquest over cancer the first time around and a changed perspective that led longtime mechanic Jake Konen to a new career teaching at Cuyamaca College.
From left, Jake Konen's son Josh; daughter-in-law Veronica Gehrich;
Be the Match representative Janet Higgens and Cuyamaca College
President Mark Zacovic

Four years after he beat non-Hodgkins lymphoma, cancer has returned to wage another war, this time in the form of acute leukemia. And Konen is determined to once again prevail.

On Thursday, while he was at the hospital with Tina, his wife of 22 years, his sons and other family members were at Cuyamaca, taking part in a donor registry drive the college sponsored on his behalf. The six-hour event netted 34 people who swabbed their cheeks for cell samples and signed up for a national registry --  a commitment until age 61 to donate stem cells or bone marrow to any patient with whom they’re found to be a match.

“It was a great drive – it only takes one match to potentially save a life,” said Janet Higgens, community outreach specialist with Be the Match, the largest registry of potential marrow donors in the world.

Higgens answered numerous questions of curious passers-by, explaining that most of the time blood cancer patients need what’s known as peripheral blood stem cell donations, a non-surgical procedure. And even if a marrow donation is needed, Higgens said it is a painless procedure under general anesthesia, a needle extraction of liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone.

“After it’s done you’ll have what feels like sore muscles in your back – it isn’t this horrible pain that people think it is,” Higgens said.

It’s unsure if Konen will have another drive, but Higgens urges anyone inspired to join the registry to do so online.

“By holding the drive on our campus, we hope we were able to give some measure of comfort to the family,” said Mark Zacovic, college president. “We regard ourselves here as a family and our involvement reflects our commitment to what we call the Cuyamaca Way.”

Now back at home, Konen is grateful and touched by the donor drive, saying his students and Border Patrol agents who work with his son, Josh, out of the Imperial Beach station were among those who signed up.

“Everyone has been incredibly supportive,” said the father of four and grandfather of two young girls. “My last day of teaching was back in October, but faculty and staff at Cuyamaca have donated their sick hours for me to be able to collect a paycheck for the rest of the year.”

After 28 years as an automotive technician, Konen decided to pursue a new career teaching in 2008 when advised by doctors that his compromised immune system made him ill-suited for the job.

His introduction to Cuyamaca College came in 1988 after successfully petitioning to get into a class taught by Jim Custeau, the longtime head of the automotive program who retired last year.

“I didn’t have the prerequisites to get into his class, but he agreed to let me in, telling me if I didn’t do well in my first test, he would kick me out,” Konen said. “I got the highest score in class and Jim and I have been friends ever since.”

Over the years, he continued to take occasional classes to keep his skills current, and joined the department’s advisory board of working professionals and industry experts.

With the same confidence that got him into his first class with Custeau, he approached the college for an unpaid teaching assistant post after he was declared cancer-free, even though he had never been a classroom instructor. His moxie, knowledge and ability to connect with students paid off, as did his decision to finish his associate degree, which he collected with honors in 2010.

After completing his degree and the semester as a teaching assistant, he earned a teaching certificate and in 2011, he was hired as an adjunct instructor.

“I knew the college was taking a gamble since I had never had any experience teaching a class on my own, but I knew after my semester as an assistant that I had found my new calling – I loved it,” he said. “I really enjoyed being able to take that 28 years of knowledge and using what I knew from the shop and combining that with the book material.”

With an easy rapport with his mostly young, male students that he says comes from having raised four sons, Konen’s teaching evaluations have been top-notch. His student, dean and peer reviews have earned him high marks.

Chris Branton, the current head of the department, said Konen has a natural gift for teaching and was on track for a full-time teaching post next semester.

“I have never seen an adjunct instructor with the dedication and commitment that Jake has shown,” he said. “I was even looking forward to him eventually taking over my job.”

Calling Cuyamaca his “home away from home,” Konen said he was devastated by the news in September that cancer had struck again – this time the result of the aggressive chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma.

“So what saved me the first time is killing me the second time,” Konen said. “But for the sake of my family – the people I love – I am going to fight this with everything I have, even though I know the longer it goes, the more the odds are stacked against you.

“I’ll be back.”