It was to have been a leisurely drive across Canada, a father and daughter stopping off occasionally to hit some tennis balls or have a game of golf.
That is what Helen Kelesi and her father, Milan, planned as they left Mississauga last July for Vancouver, where she was to start a new job.
From the start, things were not quite right for the former professional tennis player, who will be inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday. She began to have migraines and a shooting pain in her left eye. Although the B.C. native, who had ranked as high as No. 13 in the tennis world in 1989, had had a series of brain tumours dating back to 1995, she didn't think that had anything to do with her pain.
While she was still able to stop during the trip and play tennis three times with her father on asphalt public courts and a few rounds of golf, her pain finally forced them to go to walk-in clinics.
She was not diagnosed with sinusitis until she got to Abbotsford, where her father and former coach lives. Hurricane Helen, as she was nicknamed for her combustible on-court temperament, then headed for Vancouver.
Thirteen years ago, after an injury forced her to take a break from the pro tour, a sad saga began to unfold that would soon eclipse the tumult of even her most tempestuous matches. Driving into Vancouver, Ms. Kelesi, then 25, was struck by a migraine so fierce she had to pull over and vomit.
It was the first symptom of a brain tumour, which was not properly diagnosed for another nine months, when she was rushed to emergency at Vancouver General Hospital. Surgery ensued, lasting 15 hours, and resulted in the removal of a benign tumour the size of a tennis ball.
"It had pushed my brain all the way to the back of my neck," Ms. Kelesi recalled.
The operation in August of 1995 was the first of seven that have included: the removal of a tumour in her sinuses in 1997; surgery in 2000 that revealed she had tumours wrapped around both optic nerves as well as two in her brain; and two more operations that year owing to an infection that resulted in her skull being removed and eventually replaced by a synthetic one in 2002.
The tumours on her optic nerves were inoperable. "They [surgeons]went in to see if they could remove them, but it was impossible," she said about the operation in 2000. "If they touch the optic nerve or the tumour, it'll induce blindness.
"They noticed the tumours put a lot of pressure on the optic nerves. That's when they took a lot of stuff" in the area.
Those tumours and the two in her brain were shrunk by radiation, but the extra space left by the removal of tissue had made her susceptible to orbital cellulitis, or sinusitis.
Luckily, it did not reach her brain. Her surgeon had warned her it would be too dangerous to operate there because her synthetic skull would have to be removed, as would "all the hardware I have up there," she said.
When she got to Vancouver last summer after the diagnosis of sinusitis, she went through two debilitating rounds of antibiotics before waking up one day with her left eye swollen shut.
Three weeks in Vancouver General in August were followed by six weeks at home with no vision in her left eye. She had an intravenous line that went to her heart. "You're attached to this pump 24 hours a day and every three hours it was pumping medication into me. It was one of the toughest things I've had to go through. I was basically on my back and I couldn't even walk or sleep or think straight with all those meds."
When the medication regimen ended in October, vision in her left eye improved drastically. She went from being unable to decipher the E at the top of an eye chart to being able to read the third line.
She is now back teaching full-time, mostly young children, at the Pacific Tennis Academy in suburban Richmond.
About all the misfortune and suffering she has had to endure, Ms. Kelesi, 38, said, "I've learned to accept it as part of my life. One of the hardest things to go through was when they told me I was going to lose some of my vision. They didn't know, in 2000, if it would come back.
"I don't ever look too far in the future, just take it day by day."
She added, "I have four tumours right now. Two of them [in the brain]are insignificant. They're really little and aren't putting pressure anywhere."
Six months after her latest ordeal, she proudly declared, "I'm healthy and I see a personal trainer three times a week. So I'm getting in shape."
Ms. Kelesi regrets being out of touch with former fellow travellers on the pro tour. "It's a shame there isn't something for us like an alumni - how to reach so-and-so. Once a player stops playing, you lose complete contact."
French Open officials have been in touch with her. "I got a letter and I'm a member of the last-eight club, and for the rest of my life I can get tickets. There's a special lounge for players who've gotten to the quarter-finals or bette [as she did in 1988 and 1989] My dad and I were thinking of going this year but the Hall of Fame dinner is right in the middle of it."
Through the adversity, Ms. Kelesi has maintained her breezy disposition and enjoys talking about the old days. "Years ago, I was driving in my car and listening to the radio and the announcer said, 'If you can answer this question, you win a prize. Who did Monica Seles play in her first professional match?' I'm going like, 'I know this one.' And then I thought, 'Wait a minute, it was me.' "
A hearty laugh followed and she continued:
"One of my kids asked me the other day, 'Did you ever play [Jennifer]Capriati?' I went, 'Oh yeah, I played Capriati in her first Wimbledon.' It was a horribly nervous match for me, my first time on centre court, plus against her - she was like 14 but already No. 8 or No. 9 in the world.
"It's funny to go back and think of all those memories. Those are the things you can't really replace."