“I’m one of the lucky ones”
Orchard Park native J.P. Lunn wins PGA’s prestigious
Deacon Palmer Award after undergoing health battles
During a late afternoon medical appointment, a doctor scratched at J.P. Lunn’s fingernail, noticing something that no one else had until then. He was instructed to walk a straight line, as if undergoing a sobriety test. Although Lunn didn’t recognize it at the time, those simple acts probably saved his life. It was July 2014, the night before he was scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor.
By his own admission, Lunn shouldn’t be here. After two brain surgeries, radiation, heart issues, and fusion of his spinal cord, he acknowledges that he remains alive only because of a fluke medical detection. Each new morning, he is positive and upbeat, according to those who know him best.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” Lunn said. “You take everything one day at a time, and say ‘What’s next?’”
Lunn, 53, is an Orchard Park native who has worked as a golf pro for 30 years. Last month, he accepted the Deacon Palmer Award, given nationally to a PGA Golf Professional who displays outstanding integrity, character and leadership, while overcoming a major obstacle in life. Although the award was announced in 2020, the ceremony was delayed until 2021 so participants could gather in person. This year’s event was held in Milwaukee.
While health battles have been part of his life, they don’t define Lunn. He speaks passionately about his love of golf. He celebrates his family — wife Kim and daughters Sydney, 27, and Nikki, 23 — and continues to support the Bills and Sabres. At home in Frederick, Maryland, he subscribes to a TV package that allows him to see every football and hockey game from his hometown teams.
Lunn doesn’t stress much about tomorrow. He’s happy to be here today.
‘I didn’t want to lose him’
After graduating from Orchard Park High School in 1986 and High Point University in 1990, Lunn worked in the public relations department for the Buffalo Bisons. In 1991, he moved to Maryland to accept a job as an assistant golf pro at a country club. Over the years, his pedigree in the sport has expanded, working at Congressional Country Club, which played host to the U.S. Open. He participated in the design and bidding process at Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort, a Jack Nicklaus-designed property. Along the way, he owned a driving range called “Sabre Golf & Rec,” its name a nod to his favorite hockey team. Most recently, he worked at Fountain Head Country Club in Hagerstown.
Yet for more than seven years, health concerns diverted him onto an unexpected path.
“In June 2014, I went to the doctor because I’ve always had chronic sinus issues,” he explained. “They did a CT scan to see if I had an obstruction. On the scans they noticed something was wrong. I got a call from the doctor on Friday evening just before 5 p.m. saying that I needed to come into the office. By the time I called back, they were closed.”
Lunn recognized that being summoned back to the doctor was a worrying sign. It was a long weekend of uncertainty as he awaited Monday morning, when he could phone again. When he finally did, the news was shocking.
“I was told that I had a brain tumor, a pituitary microadenoma,” he said. “They suggested a list of doctors I should see.”
One of the first calls he made was to his girlfriend, Kim, who would later become his wife. Kim works for a pharmaceutical company and was attending a conference in San Diego when she took Lunn’s call.
“I knew he was meeting with the physician, but we had agreed I should go to San Diego because we didn’t know what this was going to be,” Kim said. “He called and said ‘I have a brain tumor.’ I said, ‘That’s not funny.’ He told me he wasn’t kidding. They found a mass on his brain.”
As one of Kim’s friends held her arm, she absorbed the news, then hung up and was ushered into an empty hotel conference room, where she collapsed and sobbed.
“From my perspective, it was devastating,” Kim said. She immediately booked a red-eye flight to return home. “We had been together for several years, but I felt like I had just got him and didn’t want to lose him.”
Lunn called his parents, John and Lynda, longtime residents of Orchard Park.
“They reminded me that Dad went to Nichols with a world-renowned brain surgeon, Dr. Nick Hopkins,” Lunn said. “He and Dad were close friends growing up. So right away Kim and I drove to Buffalo to see him.”
Surgery to reduce the tumor was scheduled for July 9 in Buffalo. The night before, Lunn met with Dr. Jody Leonardo, Hopkins’ colleague in the University at Buffalo Neurosurgical Department, who would be operating. That was when she put him through the tests described earlier, noticing things that no one else had.
“On examination, he had a few findings that were suggestive of a spinal cord compression,” Leonardo said. “He had a severe herniated disk and cord compression in his neck. I was surprised that no one had caught it before.”
Lunn recalled Leonardo saying that she didn’t want to alarm him, but the brain surgery was being called off. He was immediately sent for a series of MRIs, which confirmed what Leonardo suspected: Lunn suffered from stenosis in the cervical spine. These issues needed to be addressed immediately.
“We needed to take care of that before any other surgery,” Leonardo explained.
“Dr. Leonardo is my hero,” Lunn said. “She saved my life. She told me the spinal issues were more life threatening than my brain tumor. When they intubate you for surgery, they tilt your head back to get into your brain through the nasal passage. If they had intubated me, that probably would have severed my spinal column. At best I would have been paralyzed, and at worst I would have been killed.”
After being cautioned that recovering from spinal surgery would be difficult, Lunn researched surgery locations, settling on the Virginia Spine Institute in Reston, Virginia. Over the course of several days, two bones were removed from his spine and a stent was inserted.
“They basically welded my spine together from C4-C7, then did a roto-rooter where the stenosis was,” Lunn said. “As soon as I recovered from that, I had brain surgery.”
Throughout the process, Lunn remained positive, according to Kim.
“J.P. started calling friends to let them know what was going on,” she said. “His grace and approach to all this was amazing to watch. You could hear people on the phone just stop when he told them about his brain tumor. Then J.P. would say, ‘People always thought I was crazy anyway, so here you go.’ He immediately put other people at ease. His attitude was phenomenal, and it helped us get through this without completely collapsing through the unknown.”
After his spine was strengthened, brain surgery proceeded in January 2015.
“The tumor is between my eyes in the center of my head,” Lunn explained. “It’s real close to the optic nerve. If it gets there, damage tends to be irreversible. You generally notice this type of tumor through field of vision tests. People lose their peripheral vision first. There aren’t a lot of symptoms until then. It was a big fluke finding it on a CT scan.”
Because the tumor is wrapped around the pituitary gland, it cannot be completely removed for fear of damaging a vital organ.
“It’s not a different mass,” Lunn said. “It’s very cellulose, and they can’t see a difference. They try to get as much as they can and monitor it. A lot of times after surgery, it will be fine and not grow back and that’s all you need.”
“We were able to debulk it,” Leonardo explained. “Which means we were able to decrease its size, but not completely resect it. It was a stubborn little sucker. This type of tumor is very fibrous and firm.”
Lunn underwent checkups every six months. Kim admits that the process was nerve-wracking.
“I would feel fine ahead of time, but the moment we left the doctor’s office, I was flat-out exhausted.”
For more than two years, the checkups showed no problems. But in the fall of 2017, Lunn was told the tumor was growing again and he would need to undergo another surgery.
“We were knocked sideways,” Kim admitted.
By this time, Leonardo had left Buffalo for a job at Allegheny Health Network.
“I didn’t feel good about another doctor getting into my brain,” Lunn said. “We had such a good relationship with Dr. Leonardo, so we followed her to Pittsburgh and had the second surgery done there.”
Leonardo was surprised to learn that the tumor was growing again.
“It is very frustrating,” she said. “Probably 95 out of 100 cases you can get somebody almost a complete resection. It’s rare to take somebody back in for the second time. This tumor was socked down and didn’t want to go anywhere. Usually, they come out with minimal encouragement. I went in the second time knowing I needed to be more aggressive than the first time.”
Surgery was successful, and Lunn remained stable for another two years, although he did experience irregular heart issues that needed to be fixed. Then, late in 2019, he was informed that the tumor was growing yet again. A third surgery could have been done, but Lunn began to explore alternate options. He decided on proton beam radiation at the University of Maryland Medical Center.
“Its growth was more significant than usual,” Leonardo said. “When it started to grow back a third time, that’s when we decided on radiation.”
In February and March 2020, Lunn underwent 28 treatments spanning six weeks in an attempt to stop the tumor’s growth.
“They were nice enough to schedule me at 7 a.m. in Baltimore, which is about an hour away,” Lunn said. “I’d get radiation, get changed, drive back to Hagerstown, passing my house, and head to the golf course. Then I’d go home at the end of the day. It was a lot of commuting for six weeks.”
Through it all, Lunn never missed a day of work.
“I had no real issues,” he recalled. “Everybody is different. Some people lose their hair, some get sick. It made me tired and wore me out, but I was sitting next to people in gowns with IVs all day long. I was able to drive back and forth on my own, so I can’t complain one bit.”
He praises medical professionals at the hospital. His last treatment ended just before Covid shutdowns. The tumor is stable, although he will never lose it. Knowing that growth has recurred every two years, Lunn does not fret about whether that could happen again.
“It’s one of those things I just have to go through,” he said. “People have to go to the dentist, and people have to pick up laundry at the cleaners. I have to do this. It’s never really altered my life.”
He has, however, adjusted his hours at Fountain Head Country Club, an acknowledgement that he needed time and space for his body to adjust to new medications. Lunn works on his own schedule, often from home.
Deacon Palmer Award
The PGA Deacon Palmer Award is named for the father of legendary golfer Arnold Palmer. Deacon, whose full name was Milfred Jerome Palmer, was born with polio and served as head pro and greenskeeper at Latrobe Country Club outside of Pittsburgh. His son Arnold was the initial recipient of the award in 2014. Both father and son have since passed away.
From the PGA website:
The "Deacon Palmer Award" bestows special recognition on a PGA Golf Professional who personally displays outstanding integrity, character and leadership, in the effort to overcome a major obstacle in their life. This individual is an unsung hero/heroine at their facility and in their community, who serves to inspire, empower and assist others, both inside and outside of the game.
Lunn was a perfect fit.
“When it was announced that J.P. was getting the award, I was full of pride,” said Kim Lunn. The couple, who have been together for 13 years, married in 2015. “I was literally jumping up and down and squealing. It made me think about everything we’ve been through, and it wasn’t just once.”
“I’ve wondered why this happened to such a nice guy,” Leonardo reflected. “Over the years, I’ve gotten a really good feeling from J.P. and his wife. He’s undergone a frustrating diagnosis, but took it all in and was sophisticated and calm and educated. He was able to ask appropriate questions and make appropriate decisions. I have a lot of respect for how he’s dealt with everything.”
Lunn is uncomfortable with national recognition. He was profiled on CBS (watch the video above) and his story has been covered in golf magazines. He remains humble, insisting that he is simply living life the only way he knows how.
“I’ve gone to annual meetings for years,” Lunn joked. “Now I stand up to get coffee and everyone comes up to me to say ‘Hi.’ Suddenly everybody knows my name.”
Both husband and wife have kept a positive attitude and focused on the big picture.
“We’ve been so fortunate to have his medical challenges diagnosed so they can be treated,” Kim said. “If he had lost his sight, that’s not reversible. The fact that they found that was such a blessing. The upside for us is that his tumor is benign. He’s not battling cancer. It’s recurring, but it’s benign. As crazy as it may sound, I’m so happy that all this has occurred since we’ve been together and I’ve been able to be at his side. There is a sense of feeling blessed.”
© 2021 by Jeff Schober
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If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy Justin Time — a Memoir of Faith and the Fight for Life — which tells of Joe Lafferty's battle to overcome health challenges. The book, co-written by Jeff Schober, is available on Amazon. Click the cover below for more information.