Optimism, support help professor overcome illness, return to teaching


Sam Greene/Iowa State Daily

Professor Tom Baas was diagnosed with Acute myeloid leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow during the fall of 2014. He is now in remission and is returning to teaching and advising fall of 2015.

Madeline Gould

The last fall semester started off just like any semester before; advising students, teaching Animal Science 225 and swine science, with five sections and 135 students.

Then came the third week in October, when Tom Baas’ world changed with the words no one wants to hear: “You have cancer.”

Run down

During that week, he said he started to feel a “little run down,” but he was particularly busy with Ag Career Day, so he did not believe it was a serious issue.

“I could tell on Tuesday night at Swine Industry Night. I literally only went there because I knew he would be there,” said Matt Romoser, former animal science student. “I just went to converse with him, and I could just tell, not that he wasn’t his typical cheery self, he was just a little bit more gruff and short in his responses to questions I asked him.”

Tom called in sick to work that Friday, which would have been approximately his fourth sick day in 20 years.

When Tom’s condition did not improve over the weekend, he and his wife, Cindy, went to the emergency room Sunday because he was dehydrated and feeling especially sick.

What he and his wife thought was the flu turned out to be pneumonia, anemia, multiple infections and acute myeloid leukemia. Acute myeloid leukemia is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.

“When they came in to draw blood for the third time, we knew there was something more than just the flu,” Cindy said.

The diagnosis came within an hour of going to the emergency room at Mary Greeley Hospital.

“The doctor was very frank. I was very, very sick, and he said, ‘You need to be admitted to the hospital,’” Tom said.

When they heard the diagnosis, they were shocked but had to face the reality because there wasn’t a whole lot they could do.

“It was going to be our faith in God and the doctors and the nurses that we were going to be able to get through this and so that was the attitude we’ve had from the very beginning,” Tom said.

Cindy immediately contacted their three children who live in Nebraska, Illinois and Urbandale, Iowa. They wanted to jump in their cars and come see their dad immediately, but Cindy encouraged them to wait until they knew more about the diagnosis and treatment.

Tom broke the news to the then head of the Department of Animal Science, Maynard Hogberg, who is also a friend of Tom’s.

“Worst day of my life,” Hogberg said of that day. “Monday morning at 7:30 he calls me. Immediately, because he is so involved with teaching, advising, everything else, I said, ‘Well, you need to deal with it. You’re going to make sure you get your health taken care of first, we’ll figure out a way to work through it here.’”

Tom continued to teach his online class for the rest of the semester, even during his time in the hospital. As dismal as the situation was, he and his wife agreed the diagnoses was “just one more thing we’re going to face.”

Cindy permitted herself to have a cry when she went home from the emergency room that Sunday, but that was the only time she cried, she said.

“I think I just needed to let go, but after that it was always positive because I truly don’t believe it does you any good to be negative and to get crazy over it,” she said.

Pig guy at a horse show

The Baas’ have experience with handling challenges throughout their marriage, including health challenges with their son.

Cindy and Tom met at Iowa State and have been married for 42 years. The couple has three children: Kari, Jerod and Jason.

They met through the Block and Bridle Club Horse Show. Tom was the president of the club at the time, and Cindy was on the horse show committee. He was just helping wherever needed in order to make the show run smoothly.

“For a pig guy to work on a horse show was a real stretch,” Cindy said with a laugh.

As different as their livestock interests were, their backgrounds were even more diverse.

Tom grew up in Kossuth County and attended West Bend High School, a small school in northwest Iowa. He was actively involved in the school’s livestock and soil judging teams as well as Future Farmers of America.

He developed a passion for agriculture and took a special interest in pigs while growing up on his diversified livestock farm.

Cindy, on the other hand, travelled a lot because of her father’s job. She is originally from Illinois, but spent much of her time in other countries.

“Sometimes they say opposites attract, and I think we kind of were opposites,” Cindy said. “I don’t know, we just seemed to hit it off.”

She said the drive and ambition he displayed during his time as Block and Bridle president is what drew her to him.


Tom’s ambition carried him to hold positions with the United Swine Duroc Registry, the University of Tennessee and running his own farm. He also has a master’s degree and a Ph.D.

Tom came to Iowa State in an extension and research position, but soon the department had a need for a professor and he got the job. As a professor, he got the chance to develop two animal science courses: 225 and 480C, which are swine science and “Pork Fellows,” respectively.

He taught both of the classes from their conception up until this year. He had to stop teaching because of his treatment and confinement in the hospital for three straight weeks.

Isolation and acceptance

At the hospital, Tom was placed in the neutropenic room with limited visitors, comparable to an isolation room for those with a low white blood cell count. Tom would not be permitted to have contact with visitors who might display a sign of illness.

Tom said his granddaughter once asked her mom, “Can I hug Grandpa today?” after not being able to hug him during previous visits.

“That was very hard, especially for him because he is all about the grandkids, and when she couldn’t give him a hug, that made a deep impact on him,” Cindy said.

However, the Baas’ said they knew they were not in control of what was happening to him and they had to live day to day and put all their trust in the doctors and God.

Throughout his treatment, Tom underwent four chemo treatments, the first of which started the Tuesday after his diagnosis and the last ended in late February 2015. 

The treatments went over the holiday season, meaning he had to spend Thanksgiving and New Year’s weeks in the hospital.

“It was fine, the doctor asked if I wanted to go in at that time and I told him, ‘I can watch football here just as easy as I can at home,’” Tom joked.

He did not mind this so much because of his and his wife’s complete trust in the doctors and nurses at Mary Greeley, he said.

“I follow the doctor’s orders, I have a unique perspective with doctors, I think they know more about my health than I do, so I follow what they say,” he said.

This mindset allowed him to stay optimistic during his time in the hospital and during treatments.

Cindy and Tom commended the continuous positivity and calmness the hospital staff has showed toward them to this day.

“I think it was mutual, my positive attitude helped them to see that my intention was to beat this and their positive attitude and words of encouragement helped me along the line,” Tom said.

His positive attitude also helped the people who knew him stay optimistic. The people who kept in contact with him were able to see that he was still the same joyful guy that he was before going into the hospital, Cindy said.

“He joked, sometimes stupid jokes,” Cindy laughed. “He was as normal as he could be.”

Friends, family and remission

His family, friends, colleagues and students were able to keep up with his condition on a CaringBridge page his daughter started.

The overwhelming support he has received from his colleagues, friends and students also made the journey a lot easier, Tom said.

“People just came through in so many different ways,” Cindy said. “We had neighbors snow blow this winter because they didn’t think I needed to be doing that, which was really nice.”

Tom gradually started to show signs of progress as time went on.

His nurses kept charts that tracked his progress in his blood parameters every day, so when they saw the counts starting to consistently go up, it was a relief for him and the many people who supported him.

Tom went to his doctor appointment alone the day he found out he was in remission.

“My first call was to my wife, my daughter and my sons,” he said. “We were just going to enjoy the good news.”

Cindy said she was so excited that she dropped what she was doing at work and sped to the hospital and gave him a big hug.

Even though it will be a couple years before he is completely in the clear, he intends to be back teaching and advising full time in the fall. Tom said he is excited to be back because he will get to visit with people on a regular basis.

“It will be fun to have his enthusiasm back, and just being able to have that face that I can go chat with if I ever need. He’s just so personable,” Romoser said.

Tom said he feels closer to normal every day.

Coming back

“I think Baas just has a real knack for finding the potential in people and really tries to squeeze every bit out of them,” Romoser said.

Romoser and Outhouse recognized Tom as one of the people who had the most influence on them during their college careers.

“The positive impact that he has made on my college career is immeasurable. Thank you for giving me honest advice, even when it was hard for me to listen to,” Outhouse said.

Tom said he enjoys teaching because he gets to listen to students’ perspectives that he might not have been aware of before and share his experiences with students to help them.

“I kind of joke a little bit about molding young minds or warping young minds, or however you want to phrase it,” Tom laughed.

He has been a trusted member of the animal science faculty since 1994, listening to students’ successes and concerns and has helped them reach their goals, and is looking forward to beginning again after his semester and a half away.

“I think he’s come to the realization that he can’t burn the candle at 16 ends like he was before and that he needs to take a little time for himself,” Cindy said.

Because he loves being active in students’ lives, it will be a challenge for him to not be going at his previous pace, she said.

“My faith, my family, my friends have always been very important to me but they probably got even a little more important yet,” Tom said.