IU Health West Hospital

“Never have a bad day” – Patient paints through cancer

Patient Stories

November 21, 2019

Cancer robbed him of his voice box but Brian Bullerdick has found a new form of communication – his art.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

With a red marker, Brian Bullerdick writes answers on a white board. He nods. He smiles. His eyes light up when he responds to questions. There is no sign that he is sad.

In fact, Bullerdick is happy to be alive. So much so that he started a Facebook Page “Never Have a Bad Day with Brian.”

It was November 2017 when Bullerdick received his diagnosis. After battling what he thought was strep throat he learned that he had an aggressive cancer growing at the base of his tongue. Radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy followed with no success.

Before his illness he worked 35 years on rebuilding some of Indiana’s main thoroughfares – including the I-69 corridor. Even then Bullerdick set a course for his life that focused on a path of lest resistance.

“I always felt I could get more out of the workforce if they were dwelling on the good and not the bad. I would always go by the philosophy ‘if things go good the crews do good.’ If things didn’t go as well as expected then it was my fault for not preparing them or not getting them what they needed to be successful,” said Bullerdick.

Thirty-five years ago he married his wife Donna and together they have five children and three grandchildren. His family became Bullerdick’s focus as he prepared to begin the next phase of his cancer treatment.

“If you have ever been in the presence of any of the Bullerdick family members you will know they are a one of a kind family. They show love to any and everyone who walks through the door and they move through life conquering whatever comes their way. They are a family who loves humor and laughing and they are still able to find joy among the terrible storm that comes their way,” said one entry on his Facebook page.

They put their faith in a team of caregivers at IU Health. His last option to beat what he calls “the monster” was a 12-hour surgery where doctors removed and reconstructed his tongue and removed his voice box.

Every day after his surgery, when doctors came in to change his bandages, Bullerdick wrote in red letters on the white board: “We must win!!”

“I think they started to get it after a while - there was no giving up on me. I told them I was part of the team. They were the best and they were referred to as the ‘A team’ around there. They lived up to that. They do amazing things everyday,” he said.

After 25 days in the hospital, Bullerdick began his road to recovery in January and he turned to something he’d learned in high school – drawing – to help him navigate that road.

A sketch of his round-faced granddaughter, Bella, his hockey-playing grandson, Seth, granddaughter Adeline carrying a bouquet of flowers and and his daughter Abbey holding her dog Wyatt were among his early works. Over the past nine months, his artwork, like his health has flourished. Colorful flowers, a self-portrait, and a street seen in Morocco are among his signature paintings.

In February he delivered artwork to some of his caregivers at IU Health West and wrote: “I took myself to the hospital to see the people who helped change and save my life. I also took them some artwork. I don’t want them to forget about me. I don’t think that will happen I talk to them every week. They always make me feel good about myself. They will always have a place in my heart.”

One of those caregivers was Michelle Hoy, a social worker oncologist who has been with Bullerdick throughout his recovery.

“Brian is very resilient. Of all the things he’s been through and all the challenges he’s faced he continually finds ways to give others hope and give back to others through his art. He is inspirational and has an amazing family who is very close. Through this experience they have grown and exhibit such strength and courage,” said Hoy.

Over the months of his recovery, his artwork has become more vibrant and has become his voice – one of confidence and inspiration.

In one message he wrote five things he’s learned over the course of his journey with cancer: 1) Stop trying to please everyone 2) Don’t have fear of change 3) Don’t live in the past 4) Don’t overthink things 5) Don’t doubt yourself.

His messages came out through his paintings and Bullerdick began displaying his works at IU Health West and Simon Cancer Center. He’s in the process of planning a holiday exhibit at his daughter’s Main Street studio in Crawfordsville – Abbey Elaine Photography.

He drew horses, elephants, camels and cheetahs, and used words to describe them like “strength” “confidence,” and “stamina.” To help him in his recovery he remains in the care of IU Health hematologist/oncologist Dr. Sara Grethlein, meets with a dietitian and exercises through CrossFit. Over time he began communicating through an iPad.

In June Bullerdick returned to IU Health where he underwent surgery to remove his left kidney that showed signs of cancer. Just days after surgery he wrote: “We are still winning.”

Weeks later, he began painting in oils – one of his first works of a running horse was titled: “Racing in the Storm.” Next came the painting of a tree that represented “growth.”

This month, Bullerdick received news that told him he had made it through the storm. His scans showed no signs of cancer from head to toe.

As he shared the news through his Facebook Page he wrote: “I try to be cautious but I think I’m on the right track to beating this thing. I like the way I’m feeling both mentally and physically these days. I’ve gotten through the tough times with a group of really dedicated people, and an unbelievable family who never gave up on me. I keep telling people I’m going to do great things in my future. I’m defying the odds, I try to live the positives in my life and work to “never have a bad day”.

And about his art he says: “I still only paint things that make me feel good. There is a story for every painting I do. I like just looking at them and reminiscing what was going on in my life at that time. It’s been great for my rehab and helps me stay busy.”

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Cancer care includes a variety of treatments, systematic therapies, surgery and clinical trials.