Gary Pettis was riding his bike Nov. 23 on Mound Avenue in Mankato when he was struck by a 4,000-pound SUV. That event turned out to be an unusual stroke of luck, and possibly even saved his life.

While Pettis doesn’t remember the impact, he does remember what happened right before and right after he was struck. The SUV driver, distracted by a “for sale” sign at a house on the corner of Mound and Hubbell Avenues, failed to yield and hit Pettis head on from the passenger’s side of the vehicle. His bike was destroyed.

“I could hear his wheels screech a little bit and he accelerated straight into me,” Pettis said. “I discharged from my bike and was in the air a little bit. My glasses flew when I landed on my back. Luckily, the guy who hit me was a stand-up guy because he stopped.”

Soon the police, a fire truck and an ambulance arrived to take Pettis to the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. From there, doctors gave him a CT scan to evaluate the extent of the damage.

The CT scan showed no broken bones, but it did reveal something far more serious. Emergency room Dr. Paul Williams then showed Pettis an image of his kidneys.

“One of my kidneys was normal and the other kidney looked like a small boxing glove,” Pettis said. “There was a tumor wrapped around it you could see as clear as day.”

Then Williams, mindful of the fact that his patient just had a brush with death, said the word that every patient dreads — cancer. 

“I had no idea there was cancer in my body,” Pettis said. “I had no symptoms. It came as such a surprise.”

Urologic Oncology Fellow Dr. Vignesh Packiam, from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, just happened to be working in the emergency department in Mankato that day. Packiam was able to take a closer look at the imaging and discovered the tumor was beginning to invade a vein that eventually led to his heart — meaning they would have to act soon before it spread.

“Having Dr. Packiam in the hospital to help us tell Gary the exact kind of cancer we thought he had and the exact procedure that needed to be done to treat it was a huge advantage,” Williams said.

Packiam and Williams recommended Pettis undergo surgery to remove the tumor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester before Christmas, a month away.

It dawned on Pettis and the doctors that, had he not been hit by the SUV, doctors would not have found the tumor, and it would have continued to grow, possibly to the point where it would have been too late.

On Dec 11, a team led by surgical urologist Houston Thompson removed Pettis' tumor and Kidney at Mayo Clinic in Rochester.

Thompson said finding it when they did was instrumental in finding a fix. Complications from the tumor spreading to a vein without action meant it could possibly spread to the heart, or even worse — it could break off and be instantly fatal.

“Here I am – a guy that’s got the cancer scare going; they are going to cut out my kidney,” Pettis said. “And everybody on the floor said, ‘god you're lucky.’ One of the nurses came in and said, ‘You should thank that guy who hit you.’ Next thing you know I’m under the knife.”

Four hours later, with the kidney and tumor extracted, Pettis began the long road to recovery. The surgeons had to cut through his main stomach muscle, causing excruciating pain. He said it hurt to stand up, to walk, to sit down. At first, he could only take a few steps before losing his breath.

The following months were a series of baby steps as he worked to restore his health and energy, and he's still recovering to this day. 

“In a month I went from a guy who was in great shape and not a lot of physical and medical cares in the world to a major surgery in Rochester,” Pettis said. “So now I’ve been in a period of healing to get a back to where I was before I got hit by the SUV.”

Pettis said his life changed forever the moment his back hit the pavement from the November crash. He said the doctors told him if the cancer had gone undetected, it could have grown substantially before there were any symptoms. He said the experience has led him to become more proactive rather than reactive.

“I did not go looking for it, it came looking for me,” Pettis said. “None of this would have happened had I not been hit by that SUV.”

Dan Greenwood is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at dgreenwood@mankatofreepress.com