After a six-month medical journey, AJ Jakubec returns to the airwaves on TSN 1200
Published Tuesday, June 16, 2020 1:57PM EDT
AJ Jakubec and Jeff Hunt.
OTTAWA -- When In The Box airs on Wednesday morning at 10 a.m. on TSN 1200, it will mark the return of A.J. Jakubec to the airwaves for the first time in more than six months.
To commemorate the emotional milestone, multiple members of Jakubec’s family will be tuning in from the province of Alberta.
Jakubec’s parents – Zane and Lynne – will be listening intently from their home in St. Albert.
“Oh yeah, we’ll be listening,” says Zane proudly. “He is pumped and excited to get a second chance at his job and his life here.”
Meanwhile in Calgary, Jakubec’s sister Ali has put the event into the family calendar – although she’s unsure if her teenaged children will wake up at 8am local time to listen to their uncle. The kids will likely listen to the podcast version a few hours later, but Jakubec’s sister will be eagerly tuning in.
“I will definitely be listening live,” Ali says. “It’s going to be really moving. His job means so much to him because this is what he’s so passionate about. It’s such a victory for him to reach this milestone.”
Those closest to A.J. Jakubec were not certain when – or if – he would get this opportunity again. For several days in December, the veteran broadcaster was motionless, unable to communicate and intubated inside the ICU of the General Campus of the Ottawa Hospital.
His family allowed a co-worker to come into his private ICU room inside the hospital – a space generally reserved for immediate family members only. That special privilege was granted to Jeff Avery – Jakubec’s broadcast partner in the radio booth for Ottawa Redblacks games on TSN 1200.
“I was shocked to see him lying there, comatose. Tubes in and out. That hit home with how serious it was for him. When you see it first-hand, it was just shocking,” recalls Avery. “Seeing him in that condition, you’re thinking of his life – not whether he would broadcast again. You just want to see him live.”
Wednesday’s return to broadcasting will mark a significant date in the medical odyssey that turned Jakubec’s world on its side.
“I always felt like I was going to be back, but I bet there was a lot of times where other people didn’t think that,” says the 45-year-old Jakubec.
Jakubec’s parents started to grasp the gravity of the situation when their son asked them to fly to Ottawa shortly after he was admitted to the hospital in December.
“That’s when we knew it was serious,” says Zane.
AJ’s parents – both in their early 70s – dropped everything and rushed to Ottawa from their home in St. Albert, a suburban city just north of Edmonton.
While her parents were airborne, Ali was frantically phoning the General Hospital in Ottawa to get more details on her brother’s condition. At that point, she was informed that her brother would be transferred to the Intensive Care Unit and would not be conscious.
“I felt such dread for my parents, knowing that’s what they were going hit the ground in Ottawa and see,” says Ali.
When Zane and Lynne Jakubec entered the ICU at the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital, they were stunned to see the condition of their son – lifeless and breathing with the assistance of intubation.
“We were almost speechless,” says Zane. “I remember Lynne was holding his hand and we were just looking at each other. We could not believe this.”
Jakubec himself has no recollection of that period in time in which his family sat helpless by his hospital bedside in the ICU.
“I remember waking up and wondering if I was paralyzed,” Jakubec says. “It was a weird feeling.”
The family has pictures of him in that near-comatose state – though Jakubec has never seen them. But he admits he might ask for a chance to look at them before he goes on the air on Wednesday, just to appreciate how far he’s progressed during this medical journey.
“They have pictures. I haven’t asked to see them, but I kind of want to see them,” admits Jakubec. “I don’t know if it will be upsetting. I think it will be inspiring, more than anything. Maybe that day is when I go back to work.”
The last time AJ Jakubec was on the air for TSN 1200 was on Sunday, December 1st – for an OHL broadcast of the Ottawa 67s game against North Bay.
In hindsight he says he didn’t feel great during that broadcast, but was able to power through the three-hour shift. When he woke up the next morning, things took a sharp downward turn. He informed station manager John Rodenburg that he wasn’t able to work his regular shift and within hours, he says “he was in the worst pain of his life.”
Jakubec vomited and immediately felt a sense of urgency to call for help. He had experienced intermittent, low-level symptoms of nausea and abdominal pain for the past calendar year – including a brief hospital stay in December of 2018. But each time Jakubec complained of these symptoms, doctors were unable to find the underlying cause.
On this morning, however, Jakubec sensed a distinct shift from low-level symptoms to a significant medical emergency.
“I’m calling 9-1-1. This is not good,” he recalls.
As he took the first ambulance ride of his life, Jakubec remembers thinking to himself, “At least this time around, they’ll find out what’s really wrong with me.”
Upon their initial examination, doctors found several issues pertaining to his pancreas, liver and gall bladder. They determined the best course of action to stabilize Jakubec was to intubate him and rush him into ICU – which meant he would be unresponsive for several days.
Shortly thereafter – while he was still under heavy sedation – an MRI revealed multiple blockages of the pancreas and the Jakubec family was introduced to a disease that would change their lives.
“Pancreatitis? I had never heard of it in my life before that,” admits Zane.
His sister Ali arrived in Ottawa two days later to offer support to her parents, who were suddenly navigating a disease which they knew nothing about.
“I saw AJ a few weeks earlier at the Grey Cup in Calgary, so to see him like that was jarring,” says Ali. “He’s on a breathing machine and there were millions of tubes.”
Despite that upsetting backdrop, the family maintains doctors painted a positive outlook for Jakubec if they could get him out of ICU.
“We were always told there was a path to recovery,” explains Ali.
Pancreatitis is a rare, but serious condition that is characterized by the inflammation of the pancreas. If there is significant necrosis of the organ, it can lead to death in certain cases. There was some deterioration of Jakubec’s pancreas, but not enough to put him in the high-risk class for mortality with this episode.
“I didn’t fear for my life, but others did. I think that’s probably fair and accurate – but I never felt that,” says Jakubec.
On Monday, December 9th, Jakubec was released from the ICU and moved to the seventh floor of the General campus of the Ottawa Hospital. At that point, the family thought it could breathe a sigh of relief.
“When he got out of ICU, we thought it was going to be better,” admits Zane. “But it just turned out to be a marathon.”
Jakubec would spend a total of 66 days inside the hospital – with his recovery moving at a glacial pace.
On Christmas Day – more than three weeks after his medical ordeal started – Jakubec was granted a day pass to return to his one-bedroom apartment near the Byward Market.
“We were so excited for him. He needed to get out of there. It was very emotional for him,” says Zane.
But the brief return home was also a reminder of how far Jakubec still needed to go in his recovery. His basement apartment has a set of 14 stairs and Jakubec could hardly make it down when he returned home.
By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs he was out of breath.
“We had to get him a chair,” recalls Zane. “He didn’t have the energy to move any more.”
After a few minutes of sitting in a dining room chair at the bottom of the stairs, Jakubec was able to move to his sofa and keep a couple of important family holiday traditions – watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and eating pierogis.
That taste of freedom – albeit brief – served as motivation for Jakubec.
“That was a turning point for me,” admits Jakubec. “I felt really excited to go home.”
Mobility and stamina were two major hurdles for Jakubec in the first few weeks of his recovery in the hospital. He could barely walk 30 or 40 feet down the hospital hallway without being overcome with exhaustion and fatigue.
That’s when one nurse in particular – Kenzie – decided to motivate AJ by giving him a new nickname.
The name ‘Super AJ’ was born – written in large letters on the white board near his bed.
“She was trying to get him to walk and he was pushing himself. She really picked up on that,” says Zane. “She was a real positive person. And she wasn’t afraid to push him a little bit.”
Jakubec became so fond of his new nickname, that he changed his public Twitter handle to reflect his new moniker inside walls of the Ottawa Hospital.
But Kenzie wasn’t the only nurse at the Ottawa Hospital who made an impression on Jakubec. Some nurses became so fond of Jakubec, they would come by and ask him to go for a walk – even when he wasn’t their patient.
“The one thing that’s gotten me more emotional is when I think of the job that nurses and staff and people on the seventh floor of the General have done,” says Jakubec. “I have a greater appreciation for the job they do.”
On January 3rd, Jakubec was officially discharged from the Ottawa Hospital. He tweeted a photo of himself sitting on a hospital bench, wearing a Redblacks sweater and a 67s toque.
However, Jakubec would once again soon find out his medical journey was far from complete.
Jakubec returned to the Ottawa Hospital for an endoscopy procedure in mid-January, but he came home feeling unwell. His fever spiked and he was re-admitted to the hospital after doctors realized he contracted an infection from the procedure.
He required four more endoscopic procedures and each of them took a toll on his body. After the third endoscopy, Jakubec says the pain was comparable to what he experienced when he had to dial 9-1-1 in December.
There was concern that perhaps his kidneys had become compromised as well, leading to a 48-hour window of uncertainty.
“That was probably my lowest point in this whole thing — when they thought something was wrong with my kidneys too,” admits Jakubec, who says he was receiving a cocktail of daily medications. “I was like okay, ‘What’s next here?’”
At this point, the mental obstacles became just as daunting as the physical ones for Jakubec.
“One thing I learned is that not everything is going to be linear in your recovery,” says Jakubec. “There are going to be bumps in the road and setbacks. And some of those were tough to deal with mentally.”
And so the endless parade of visitors and well-wishers became a key part of his recovery in keeping him in a positive frame of mind.
The CFL community in particular rallied around Jakubec. There were hospital visits from the likes of Rick Campbell, Marcel Desjardins and Henry Burris. A video message from new Redblacks head coach Paul LaPolice. And plenty of direct messages from CFL players as well.
“Those Redblacks messages were huge in assisting him with keeping positive,” says Jeff Avery. “Those things meant a lot to him. It was huge that people stayed involved and showed support.”
The junior hockey community also showed their support. Brian Kilrea personally visited Jakubec’s room – a vivid memory his family will cherish forever. Jeff Hunt personally picked up the tab for Jakubec to have a personal television inside his hospital room on two occasions, while OSEG president and CEO Mark Goudie paid another time. The private TV allowed Jakubec to watch dozens of sporting events from his hospital bed – including the Super Bowl.
He received a direct message from former Oshawa Generals defenceman Will Petschenig – a rival player whom Jakubec always admired when broadcasting 67s games.
“He reached out to me out of the blue and said ‘Get Better Soon’. And he told me that he’s a big fan of mine. That floored me,” says Jakubec.
Patrick Grandmaitre – the head coach of the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team – connected with Jakubec and told him about his own battle with pancreatitis.
In one small window, Jakubec recalls his parents tallying up a total of 80 different visitors to his hospital room on the seventh floor.
In hindsight, Jakubec considers himself fortunate to have had a medical crisis prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. Pandemic-related restrictions have made it impossible for patients to receive the type of emotional support Jakubec was receiving during his stay in the hospital.
“I can’t imagine not having that support coming in on a regular basis,” Jakubec says. “I feel for anybody who’s been in hospital since mid-March.”
“The visits from friends, it was amazing for him. It was huge,” says Zane. “Looking at us all day wasn’t a good deal for him. He needed some variety and to talk sports with his friends and people his age.”
His childhood friend Doug MacLean came rushing from Edmonton during the first week Jakubec was hospitalized. MacLean only spent 24 hours in Ottawa, but wanted to make sure he was at his ailing friend’s bedside.
In Ottawa, Jamie McKenzie – an affable real estate agent and former rugby player who goes by the nickname ‘Macca’ – became a crucial backbone to Jakubec, taking care of most of his logistical needs. He would often serve as Jakubec’s personal chauffer, shuttling him to and from all of his appointments or picking up his parents from the airport.
McKenzie and former CTV Ottawa sportscaster Terry Marcotte alternated getting groceries for Jakubec once he was discharged from the hospital. After one endoscopic procedure, Marcotte even spent the night with Jakubec to keep him company.
TSN 1200 radio colleagues stepped in and offered to make meals for Jakubec and his family. The wife of Kenny Walls – Jakubec’s broadcast partner on 67s games – made homemade shepherd’s pies that were particularly memorable for the family.
The overwhelming support gave the Jakubec family an eye-opening lesson in how much their son and brother had integrated himself into the community in Ottawa.
“That’s his Ottawa family,” says Ali. “It gave us peace of mind knowing that he was taken care of, even if we had to be thousands of kilometers away.”
When the initial medical episode was happening in December, nobody in the family had any contact information for Jakubec’s work colleagues. So Ali actually phoned the main switchboard number that listeners call into – 613-750-1200 – to find the contact information for station manager John Rodenburg.
For weeks, there were daily communications between the family and Rodenburg – via text and phone calls. Sometimes, Ali would be texting Rodenburg without realizing he was on the air for his morning show, but she always got a prompt reply.
The message from Rodenburg to the family was consistent: Put AJ’s health first and the radio job will be waiting for him.
“It was like John Rodenburg was part of our family,” says Ali, recalling the calming influence he had on the situation.
“We cannot say enough about the compassion and leadership from John Rodenburg,” echoes Zane. “JR is the real glue who keeps that place together.”
With the support of his friends, family and colleagues as a motivating factor, Jakubec was finally discharged on February 27th. It marked the end of 66 total nights at the Ottawa Hospital – mostly spent on the seventh floor.
As Jakubec walked out of the hospital with his mom, the nurses and staff lined up against the wall and cheered him out.
“How do you not get emotional thinking about that?” Jakubec asks, his voice cracking with emotion. “That’s something that always gets me when I think about it.”
There are still a few medical hurdles for Jakubec to clear. He’ll have a CT scan later this summer and if all goes according to plan, he’ll have stents and an internal drain removed shortly thereafter.
At some point down the road, he’ll need to have his gallbladder removed as well.
But doctors have determined he is not in the immuno-compromised category, so he is free to resume most activities even with COVID restrictions in place – including his much-anticipated return to work on Wednesday.
He will dedicate a portion of Wednesday’s show to talking about the job done by nurses, doctors and staff at the General Hospital, who helped him on his path to recovery.
After watching other work colleagues from Bell Media like Greg Hebert, Stuntman Stu and Brian Fraser battle publicly with their illnesses, Jakubec says he wants to be open and honest about his own medical journey.
“Being inspired by those people made me want to open up and be as candid as possible,” Jakubec says. “When you’re in a job like ours, you want to give back. So if anybody has questions about this, I would be happy to help.”
And Jakubec concedes he might get emotional while the red light is on Wednesday, when thinking about the life-altering impact that doctors and nurses had on his life.
“I don’t know how my emotions are going to be,” admits Jakubec. “Getting that clearance from the doctor to go back to work as a big step. It’s going to be a big show for me.”
For years, TSN 1200 listeners have become accustomed to Jakubec’s lengthy, passionate rants on the radio – ranging from anywhere from Stan Bowman’s abilities as a general manager to humidity being factored into the temperature on a summer day.
Jakubec says that while he has a new perspective on life, he will still bring the same passion and fire to the radio. He may have lost 40 pounds during this medical episode, but he’s determined to still be a heavyweight when he’s behind the microphone.
And so a passionate, sports-related rant isn’t out of the question when he returns to work on Wednesday morning.
“I don’t have one planned, but it could come out of the blue,” laughs Jakubec. “It might come on that first day, or in a week or in a month, but there’s no doubt I have the energy and the passion for it. That certainly isn’t going to change.”