While Jude Pastor was installing a rock garden on a broiling July afternoon in Louisiana, he could not wait to enjoy a cold soda. When he finally allowed himself a break, he drank deeply, expecting to almost instantly feel refreshed and restored.
Instead, he was jolted by pain he never experienced before.
“Wow, that hurt,” he told his wife, Jamie.
They resumed their heavy lifting, eager to make headway with the project before they left for work the following morning at Louisiana Downs. In addition to operating a small stable together, Jude, known to most on the backside as “Leggs” for his long legs and tall frame, works as an exercise rider and blacksmith. Jamie trains their horses in the morning; she leads runners to the starting gate in the afternoon.
When the pain in Jude's throat eased but did not go away, they grew concerned. They visited two doctors and a hospital emergency room before tests led to the kind of news everyone dreads. Jude, 56, was ultimately diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the esophagus with metastatic disease to the liver, spine and roof of the mouth.
“Bad news after bad news after bad news,” Jamie said.
They had come so far and been so happy together since Jude got her attention by springing for a beer during Quarter Beer Night at a Shreveport, La., bar in 1994. Their lives became one soon after that. They were married in 2003.
Jude took another huge step in his personal life when he decided to quit drinking shortly before Thanksgiving of 2006. He has been sober since then.
According to Jude, he started drinking as soon as he entered his teenage years in Lafayette, La. Alcohol became so dominant in his life that he entered a treatment program when he was 20. No amount of talk was about to convince him to stop. He estimates that he drank daily for approximately 30 years.
Then he examined his life one day, and reality shook him as hard as that cold soda would. He knew, at that instant, that everything needed to change.
“I realized I was doing the same things at 44 as I did when I was 20. I wasn't getting nowhere,” he said. “I said, 'I must be doing something wrong so I'm going to eliminate the obvious, which is drinking daily.' I was a functioning drunk, but still a drunk.”
It would be understandable if Jude cried out “Why me?” after seemingly conquering one disease only to develop another for which doctors offer no hope of a cure. Following round after round of intensive chemotherapy and radiation, the effort now is to slow or stop the advance of his aggressive form of cancer rather than eradicate it.
Jude does not shake his fists at the heavens. Instead, he wills himself to get to the barn almost every morning, where he receives therapy second to none.
“It keeps him going,” Jamie said during a phone interview from their seven-horse operation at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. “If he couldn't come here, he'd just as soon lay down and die, I think.”
Jude is leaning heavily on his faith, his wife, and his work to help him cope with circumstances that appear to offer no hope.
“First thing when I wake up, I thank the Lord for giving me one more day,” Jude said. “I thank him for my life, and I thank him for my wife.” He typically arrives at 4:45 a.m. at the barn, where his focus on the many tasks at hand keeps him from grim thoughts.
“Showing up every day, staying as fit as I can and doing what I can is definitely prolonging the inevitable,” he said. “I would like to make it later, you know.”
Jude may not know whether he is capable of riding on a particular day until he is on horseback. He understands the importance of being as sure and steady as he has always been.
“There have been times when they leg me up and I say, 'I can't do it today. You'd better put me down because I'm too dizzy and whatnot,' “ Jude said. “I'm not going to go out there and endanger my fellow riders. I know when I can and can't.”
Jude and Jamie are well known at Louisiana Downs and Fair Grounds for their willingness to help others. “We have always opened our doors,” Jamie said. “It seems like half the people on the racetrack have lived with us.”
Now that they are in need, the response has been overwhelming. Winner's Circle Church, based at Louisiana Downs, held a fundraiser for the Pastors to help them with various expenses before they shipped to Fair Grounds on Nov. 1.
Many from competing barns have brought them food. When Jude has been unable to gallop horses at Fair Grounds, Randy Shamsie, David Applebee and Jairo Rodriguez are among those who hopped aboard to fill the void.
“It's a beautiful family,” said Jamie, her voice filled with emotion. “When you're really down, they pitch in to help. And it comes from the most unexpected places.”
Jude's greatest hope these days is that his story will help others embrace sobriety, and that those in seemingly impossible circumstances will be inspired to persevere.
Jamie said of their experience, “It's been the most horrible, awful, beautiful thing you can ever imagine.”
If you wish to suggest a backstretch worker as a potential subject for In Their Care, please send an email to [email protected] that includes the person's name and contact information in addition to a brief description of the employee's background.
Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.
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