Small gesture of kindness at gym leads to lasting friendship

Training has provided support and surprise at Sanford Sports Grand Forks

Small gesture of kindness at gym leads to lasting friendship

It may look like any other workout. But Todd Van Laere and his trainer, Anthony Morando, have developed a friendship through the weight room.

Todd’s medical journey

Back in 2018, Van Laere was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. A gene mutation made his case highly adverse and required a stem cell transplant at the Mayo Clinic. His brother David was a perfect match, but his treatment was taxing.

“You’ve got to stay there for a hundred days,” said Van Laere of Northwood, North Dakota. “But they also told me that ‘I’m going to try to cure you of a disease, but I’m going to give you another disease.’”

That disease is called graft-versus-host disease, where the newly transplanted stem cells attack not just the cancer cells, but the healthy parts of Van Laere’s body as well.

“I basically lived at Mayo for about two years. I had a lot of complications after a hundred days,” Van Laere said. “Infections in my back, my hips, my knees. I ended up with compression fractures in my back. I’ve had both my hips replaced. I’ve had six different hip surgeries. I’ve had both my shoulders replaced because of it.

“I did all my surgeries in one year, had all the replacements in a one-year timeframe. And I think it was end of 2020 is when I finally started really doing PT.”

Small acts of kindness

When Van Laere finally made it back home, he needed a wheelchair. He started doing physical therapy in Grand Forks at a gym where Anthony worked. The two didn’t train together, but every day, Morando made it a point to say hello.

“The deck seemed like it was stacked against him at the time. So say, ‘What’s up? How’s it going?’ Anybody can do that,” Morando said. “Obviously he’s trying, he’s showing up. And if anybody’s struggling to any extent, you don’t want to see somebody just constantly down. So that’s all just being a normal human.”

That small kindness stuck with Van Laere. And when Morando came to work at Sanford Sports in Grand Forks, Van Laere — who was now out of the wheelchair — sought him out.

“When I came walking in the door here, and I actually came walking in the door … I said, ‘Bet you don’t remember me.’ I had a mask on too at the time. And he’s like, ‘No.’ And I took my mask down and he was like, ‘Holy s*** Todd. Oh my God. I thought you were dead,’” said Van Leare, laughing at the memory.

“I probably took a triple take,” said Morando, the general manager of Sanford Sports Grand Forks. “I honestly didn’t even know if he was alive. That’s how bad he looked. Like he was hurting physically, could not move. He was masked up. He was in a wheelchair. He had braces on him. But no, I didn’t know who he was. And then it dawned on me and I just said, ‘You look great!’”

Stronger than before

More than five years after his diagnosis, Van Laere is now working out twice a week with Morando, one hour per session, building his body back up in order to do what he loves.

“I am playing golf now,” Van Laere said. “Stamina is a big thing. I like to hunt. I like to fish. I like to walk with my dogs. So it’s a lot of coordination, balance, core stuff. Just trying to feel normal again. And it’s working because I believe that I’m actually stronger now than before 2017.”

For his part, Morando knows that Van Laere’s workouts need to be tailored to avoid reinjuring his back, shoulders and hips.

“With a guy like Todd, or any member that comes in past the age of 30, you almost become a jigsaw puzzle. Especially with all the things that he’s been through. There are certain days he comes out of here, he’s not feeling great,” Morando said. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows every day. If his back is sore, there’s a certain movement in our workout that might not happen that day, and I might have to shift it to something else. That’s what I do.”

When it’s time to train, the two men just click. They stop talking sports just long enough to move on to the next exercise. Then it’s back to their friendship. Which is something Van Laere is extremely grateful for.

“His personality is what makes it fun here, not just for me, but you see it with everybody else,” said Van Laere. “My journey started at the hospital, but this is where I’m supposed to be now. And finishing my journey with him has been the most important part of this journey. Because if I didn’t have him, I still don’t know if I would be able to do the things that I love to do.”

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Posted In Grand Forks, Rehabilitation & Therapy, Sanford Sports