“I’m intimidated. Being a new father, and loving my career, and loving my relationship with my wife and my community, I love the life that I’m living,” says Ryan Conrad, a local yoga instructor, physical therapist and fixture of the Asheville community for nearly 20 years. In August, Conrad’s wife, Brooke, gave birth to their son, Harper, but just four months later, after beginning to see symptoms around Thanksgiving, Conrad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at the abnormally young age of 37.
“I feel like I’ve lived a really good life,” he says, “and that helps to diminish some of the fear moving forward regardless of the outcome.” But Conrad is by no means just sitting back to see what happens. Rather than relying on the initial diagnosis and treatment recommendations, he sought a second opinion at Duke University. But when Duke requested a second CT scan, his insurance company balked at the figure.
“I went to Duke, and they ordered a CT scan, but they didn’t see what they wanted, so they ordered a second one.” He says, “When my insurance saw that, they said, ‘That first CT scan should have been enough, that’s redundant, we’re not going to pay for that.’ So even after we get out of that out-of-pocket max for that, there are so many uncertainties as to what I’m actually going to have to pay for all of this because we are still at the beginning of this whole process.”
The family set an initial goal of $75,000 for the fundraising, but after feedback from survivors of the process and medical professionals, “they told us, ‘You should be asking for more, because you’re probably going to need it.'” Friends of the family have organized a YouCaring fundraiser, dubbed Save Ryan’s Asana, with a goal of $150,000 that has nearly achieved that target.
“I consider him family,” says Suzy Phillips, chef of Gypsy Queen Cuisine, who started the process of developing a benefit for the Conrads with Blind Pig Supper Club. “He’s always been here helping others to heal.”
The dinner has brought together a number of chefs from across the state, including Raleigh’s James Beard Award-winning Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner, Death & Taxes and Fox Liquor Bar; chef Adam Bannasch of Zambra and Copper Crown; Mike Moore of Blind Pig; the legendary pitmaster Sam Jones of Skylight Inn BBQ; and Phillips herself. Team members are volunteering their time in hopes of helping get the Conrads a little closer to those goals, alleviate the pressure and provide a little space and comfort for Ryan without the stress of hospital bills and insurance battles.
“He does so many things for so many people,” says Moore. “He’s a healer, and it’s just so horribly ironic that he would have to fight something like this.”
But Conrad sounds confident and ready, like an athlete before stepping into the game.
“One of the things that we discuss a lot is … the prognosis is not great,” he says. “With the five-year survival rate … I’ve read numbers between 1 percent and 5 percent for pancreatic cancer, and so just knowing that is the reality, and knowing that there is a possibility that I might not be here five years from now and that Brooke might be a single mother. Those are realities that we are having to face.” His wife, Brooke Priddy Conrad, is a busy working mother, running the thriving Ship to Shore clothier specializing in intricate handmade clothing.
Treatment for pancreatic cancer is complicated, as Conrad explains. Even after receiving weeks of radiation, “they are fairly certain that the Whipple procedure is what we will be doing.” The intense procedure requires cutting out the head of the pancreas, gall bladder, the bottom third of the stomach and a section of the intestine, then patching it all back together.
Conrad is keenly aware of the fact that of those who undergo such a procedure, there is a 25 percent success rate. “I’ll be in the hospital at Duke for about two weeks, and then they said that it will be about 12 weeks to get back to 80 percent of my strength level.”
Blind Pig’s The Best Dinner of My Life, a Benefit for the Conrad Family will be held Saturday, April 2. Tickets are $100 with proceeds benefiting the family. According to Moore, only about half the tickets available have been sold, something he’d like to see change. “We’d really like to see this thing sell out,” he says.
“If everything goes great, and five to 10 years down the road I’m in remission, and we have a surplus,” muses Conrad, “then we can donate it all to pancreatic cancer research or refund it, or do something amazing with this abundance that’s been directed our way. But we’re at the beginning of all of this, and there are so many unknowns.”
For tickets, visit www.theblindpigsupperclub.com.
To directly donate to the Conrad family, visit www.youcaring.com/ryan-conrad-496493.