The Turkey Chef: How cancer helped Casper man rediscover the joy of food

By The Pulse Nov 27, 2013

Larry Bockman fills his plate at the Masterson Place November potluck, hosted by the Wyoming Medical Center Foundation's Angels Cancer Care Program. Bockman taught himself to cook after his taste buds when haywire from chemotherapy.

Larry Bockman fills his plate at the Masterson Place November potluck, hosted by the Wyoming Medical Center Foundation's Angels Cancer Care Program. Bockman taught himself to cook after his taste buds went haywire from chemotherapy.

He stuffed the turkey with apples and cinnamon, rubbed it with oil and seasoned it with rosemary. He smoked it for 3 ½ hours. He made giblet gravy with boiled egg and cornbread dressing with leeks and celery, just like his Arkansas-raised mother made at Thanksgiving.

Chemotherapy wrecked Larry Bockman’s taste buds so he taught himself to cook. He experimented with spices and focused on flavor. He cooked treats for the staff of Rocky Mountain Oncology: Tater tots and jalapeno slices wrapped in bacon, berry tarts with wafer cookies and ricotta cheese, meatloaf with green pea mousse.

On Nov. 13, he cooked for the guests of the Masterson Place, a home away from home for out-of-town patients of Wyoming Medical Center and Rocky Mountain Oncology. He volunteered to smoke the turkey for WMC Foundation’s Angels Cancer Care Program which hosts one potluck dinner there a month. For guests such as Marie Richter, it was a chance for an early Thanksgiving without the worry of planning it herself. Richter and her husband have stayed at Masterson Place since July while her husband goes through chemo treatments. They drive home to Thermopolis on the weekends.

“Each week, they give us the same room. It feels like we’ve come home whenever we get here,” said Richter, who went to the potluck alone while her husband recovered from surgery at WMC. She ate her turkey and cornbread stuffing with Deborah Surat, a veteran from Riverton. The women had never before met.

“The food is delicious and the company is nice,” Surat said. “It feels homey.”

The purpose of these dinners is to establish community among the patients and families served at Masterson Place, said Jillian Riddle, Angels program coordinator at Wyoming Medical Center.

Marie Richter of Thermopolis, at right, sits with Deborah Surat of Riverton, during the Masterson Place Thanksgiving potluck on Nov. 13.

Marie Richter of Thermopolis, at right, sits with Deborah Surat of Riverton, during the Masterson Place Thanksgiving potluck on Nov. 13.

“It's amazing to watch strangers in crisis -- those facing surgeries, injuries and cancer treatments -- bond over a meal.”

Bockman has cooked for the Angels’ potlucks for about seven months. As a cancer patient himself, he knows what it’s like to be unsure about what’s coming and the comfort of a good meal. Cooking, he says, gives him purpose and occupies his mind.

He moved back to Wyoming about three years ago after decades of logging in Washington and Alaska. His family spent 45 years in Encampment, and his brother got him a job hauling oil in Glenrock.

Masterson3

Patricia Anderson of Riverton goes through the potluck line at the Masterson Place. She came to Casper to support her friend Palmer Mattson, shown in back, who had a doctor's appointment with cardiologist Dr. Adrian Fluture. Mattson has stayed at the Masterson Place many times, but never during one of the Angels' potlucks. "I think it's wonderful," Palmer said. "It's convenient for people who don't have a lot of money, it helps them out."

He noticed he couldn’t do as much as he used to. One day, he climbed to the top of the 22-foot oil tanker and couldn’t catch his breath. He heard water sloshing around in his chest. His doctor said his lung was full of fluid and admitted him to Wyoming Medical Center.

There, his doctor broke the news the X-rays had confirmed: Bockman had cancer.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he responded.

Cancer had killed his mother just a few months earlier. It killed his dad in 1978 when nothing could be done. Doctors told his dad to go home so he could die there.

Bockman was diagnosed with two forms of cancer. The first was B-cell lymphoma and spots covered his back, hips and right arm bone. He started chemotherapy at Rocky Mountain Oncology and spent 10 days at WMC to stop his lungs from leaking.

Isaac, 2, Natalie and Landon Bluemel share an early Thanksgiving meal with guests of the Masterson Place. Landon is a medical student in surgery in the University of Wyoming residency program. He and his family are staying in the Masterson Place while in Casper.

Isaac, 2, Natalie and Landon Bluemel share an early Thanksgiving meal with guests of the Masterson Place. Landon is a medical student in surgery in the University of Wyoming residency program. He and his family are staying in the Masterson Place while in Casper.

“I enjoyed the hospital. I really did. You’re there because you’re sick, you don’t need to make everybody else miserable by complaining,” he said. “I had the best nurses. There was nothing that I asked for that they wouldn’t get for me.”

In between chemo treatments, when all he could do was rest on his couch, Bockman watched television. He got to liking some of the shows on The Food Network and discovered that he could find recipes for everything they cooked on the internet. He started piddling in the kitchen of his 38-foot camper, where he lives. He pulled his smoker from his shed and smoked meats -- briskets, ribs, chicken. He moved to harder dishes and threw out whatever he didn’t like. After a life of eating in great greasy diners and in logging camps with fantastic home-style cooks, he rediscovered a love of food.

Bockman’s second type of cancer -- Follicular lymphoma, a mass growing in his abdomen -- didn’t respond to chemotherapy or 26 radiation treatments. He’s on a special cancer drug and plans to undergo a T-cell transplant in Denver. He’ll monitor it and do what he can, but there is no cure for his case, he says.

“It’s going to kill me eventually, there is no doubt about it. I’m a realist. I’ll be 64 in February and I’ve traipsed all over the mountains, all over the woods. I’ve broken hands, cut myself with chainsaws, broke my back a couple or three times. You know, just everyday life. When I was young, I thought I was 10 foot tall and bullet proof. I’m paying for that past life, I guess. What the heck,” he said.

“But I’m so blessed with the treatment available now. I will bide my time and try to do good.”

And he’ll cook.

This Thanksgiving, he’s letting his niece cook for him.  But he’ll be back in his camper’s kitchen soon enough, mixing up something for the ladies at Rocky Mountain Oncology and the families and patients at Masterson Place: Homemade sausage and brats, white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies, a Tuscan soup that is to die for.

 

Olivia Schuler, known at the Masterson Place dinners as the Littlest Angel and official greeter, enjoys a turkey leg almost as big as her head.

Olivia Schuler, known at the Masterson Place dinners as the Littlest Angel and official greeter, enjoys a turkey leg almost as big as her head.

About the angels

The Wyoming Medical Center Foundation’s Angels Cancer Care program serves hundreds of Wyoming cancer patients every year offering emotional support and financial assistance with wigs, gas cards, transportation and more. To learn more or to make a donation, call (307) 577-4355 or visit our website.

About Masterson Place

The Masterson Place serves thousands of patients every year. At a cost of $40 per night with both short- and long-term rooms, it is a comfortable refuge for those who need it most. Each room has a small eating area, microwave and refrigerator. Through contributions, the Wyoming Medical Center Foundation continues to make significant upgrades to the Masterson Place each year.

For reservations or more information, contact the Masterson Place at (307) 237-5933 or visit our website.

To make a donation, contact the Wyoming Medical Center Foundation:

1233 E. Second St.
Casper, WY 82601
(307) 577-2973

Email Article

Send "The Turkey Chef: How cancer helped Casper man rediscover the joy of food" to a friend